Saturday, September 30, 2006

Small (minded) Britain?

The past few weeks I've been getting into the comic brilliance that is Little Britain (and you thought the scarce posting was due to work and uni commitments...). Without doubt, the content is funny, but the more I watch it, the more I see a nasty, almost xenophobic streak running through the portrayal of the characters. In fairness, I've only watched the first series, so things might be different with the recent stuff, but I doubt it.

Here's my take on it. Little Britain is a show for middle class, tertiary educated BBC-watchers (and their Australian counterparts) which takes the piss out of everyone else: the old, the decrepid, the gay, the disabled, the working class, the transvestite, the fat, the Scottish. In other words, it's cultural insiders laughing at (most definitely not with) cultural outsiders.

The dozen or so regular characters represent the subconscious prejudices of a mildly insecure audience. None of the characters represent the sort of people who might actually be watching: they're not in on the joke. A few examples helps to illustrate:

- Vicky Pollard is the 'yeah but no but' girl who is the epitome of chav/bogun. She's crass, loud, crude, chubby, and ugly, but has absolutely no self-awareness of her own ridiculousness. She is the girl that every middle class family fears hopes their daughter never becomes. And she'd never watch the BBC.

Vicky Pollard


- Andy and Lou are the coupling of the physically and mentally disabled man with his carer. Andy, as the indicisive, slightly disturbed twit, is a subject of derision and scorn, completely devoid of pity. But then so is his carer, Lou, whose noble but pathetic existance is relentlessly mocked. (The sketches, incidentally, are of panto-like simplicity: "Do you want X?" "Yeah." "Are you sure?" "Yeah" "But you don't like X?" "I know." "But you're sure you want X?" "Yeah." "Okay." "I want Y.")

Lou and Andy


- Sebastian, the Prime Minister's aid, is a sadly deluded gay man who can't take a hint. Here the contrast is interesting when the hopelessly camp gay man is compared with the serious and refined Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the straight man (in more ways than one), and is one of few characters who is never the butt of the joke. He is, after all, white, straight, male and educated.

Sebastian


The point I'm making is not that there's something inherently wrong with LB or that we should feel guilty and finding it funny. I'm a firm believer that the biggest offence in black comedy is not being funny: so long as it is funny, you can get away with it. And this stuff most certainly is. I think, though, that audiences are not attuned to the political nature of what they're watching, and need to face up to the fact that the show reinforces prejudices rather than challenges them.

It's ironic that there are a legion of lefties who are usually very sensitive to prejudices and stereotypes elsewhere, but will declare themselves LB fans. I suspect the BBC/ABC gives the show 'cover' from criticisms that can quite righly be levelled at the show.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Prahran: Lib's Sustainable Planet Forum

Holding a public meeting in the midst of an election campaign is an exercise that can be frought with danger: it's hard to hide the vast swathes of empty seats that are a testament to public apathy, and the chances of an ambush by supporters of 'the other guy' are high. Local lib Clem Newton-Blog has done just that, and with an extra degree of difficulty to boot.

Last Tuesday the Prahran Town Hall played host to the grandly titled Sustainable Planet Forum 2006. Okay, so in essence it was a campaign event for the Liberals, but there was a lot more than mere tub-thumping going on. The panel of seven included a few Libs (David Davis, Greg Hunt), but also a few from left field, such as weatherman-cum-environmentalist Rob Gell, public transport guru Paul Mees, spokespeople from Environment Victoria and the Wilderness Society (they even had a table at the back of the room) and everyone's favourite Catholic funnyman, Father Bob Maguire.

Sustainable Planet Forum


As with most public meetings that aren't simply there to whinge about overdevelopment, this one was sparsely attended. The fifty of us who were there, though, we're treated to an excellent overview of the environmental issues that plague us.

Greg Hunt offered an interesting perspective on the water dilemmas that Melbourne is currently facing. He looked at the issue as the challenge that our generation needs to meet, much like previous generations have had challenges of their own to meet and overcome. He compared it to the cholera epidemic that plagued London in the 1860s, or the acid rain that fell upon cities in Europe and North America in the 1980s. Both of these eras had their doomsayers, but both overcame them.

Megan Clinton from the Wilderness Society (!!) gave a presentation on the destruction of old growth forest in eastern Victoria: essentially Gippsland plus a bit more. Paul Mees spoke about the lessons that can be learnt from the Zurich public transport system - including the interesting snippet that their transport bureaucracy has one-tenth the staff of ours, and those guys actually run their system rather than merely overseeing the running of it, like our Department of Infrastructure does.

At first the issues on the table seem like a disparate grab-bag of enviro-concerns. Looking a little deeper, though, and there's a clear common theme.

Each of these issues revolves around how we, as a society, deal with scarce resources. In the case of water, the scarcity is obvious. In the case of logging, the scarcity lies in the pristine old growth forests. In the case of transport, the scarcity of both oil and road space is at play. Though it was a little quiet on the night, we could also add to that list energy generation, in which we have a scarcity of clean sources of fuel.

And the solution to this scarcity? That's where I believes the Liberals could really show leadership, if only they saw it. Each of these issues could be dealt with effectively through a pricing mechanism that both reflected the scarcity of the goods, and the environmental impact of consumption: internalise the externalities. It's absurd that water is both suffering a critical shortage, and is cheap as, well, water. We can have all the water restrictions and public education campaigns in the world, but if we charge a price that reflects the scarcity of the good, we can be sure consumers' behaviour will change pretty quickly. Applying the same logic to the other scarcities will net similar results.

This is an idea that should sit snugly within the values of the Liberal Party. It emphasises the importance of individual consumers in achieving environmental change, and by internalising externalities, it makes individuals responsable for the effects of their own consumption. It would create a myriad of opportunities for environmenal entrepreneurs, who all of a sudden will find their alternative energy sources may be cost effective and that consumers are rushing toward installing water tanks in the backyard.

With the Libs slowly starting to engage in the debate, perhaps we're finally getting somewhere.

(Admittedly, I left before the final speaker, David Davis, and questions. But I doubt he differed greatly from the party line.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Review: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear, & the Selling of American Empire

The fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001 has spawned the release of a plethora of films and documentaries about that fatal day. In United 93 and World Trade Centre we are exposed to the detail - sometimes excruciatingly so - of the disaster, from the death of innocents to the stories of heroism and the noble struggle of good against evil.

These films, however, are a-historical, in that they make no attempt to locate the events they portray in a broader context or historical narrative. Instead they are disaster films in the classic sense: a freak, unexplained events disrupts the otherwise ordinary lives of the antagonists. Hijacking Catastrophe takes a different approach. A compelling documentary, it posits September 11 not as a climax, nor a freak event, but as an enabling act, one that allowed the otherwise thwarted ambitions of a clique of foreign policy wonks to become reality.

Read the rest at The Program.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Vale, Alexander Sharp

Last Friday my grandfather passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 81. His funeral was on Monday, and I was invited to give the eulogy. My grandfather was a special man - and an occasional reader of this blog - and as a tribute to him, I've decided to republish my eulogy for him.

I'll miss you, Zaida.


A Eulogy for Alexander Sharp (1924-2006)

Alec Sharp, 1924-2006

Every person has just one life, and they owe it to themselves to make the most of it. My Zaida certainly did that. I saw my Zaida through a grandchild’s eyes, watching him in awe as a larger than life figure and the source of all wisdom. He was a man who received so much naches in the achievements of his children and grandchildren, that it was as if he had achieved all these things himself. Zaida was the patriarch of a family, a role that I know he was proud to play, with his three children and nine grandchildren carrying on his legacy.

Sorting through my grandfather’s personal papers since his death, I came across a faded handwritten letter. It was dated 6 September 1942, and written by the Rabbi of the Perth Hebrew Congregation. This is what it says:

To whom it may concern.

I have pleasure in stating that I have known Mr Alec Sharp, of 221 Lake Street, North Perth for over three years. I am impressed by his sincerity of manner, and high sense of responsibility. He is a person of good fame and repute and I believe him to be capable, conscientious and self-reliant. I therefore recommend him warmly to any position he may seek.

Rabbi L Rubin-Zacks


This was written more than forty years before I was born, but it was as true of the grandfather that I knew as it was of the seventeen year old student of whom it was written. His good nature was enduring throughout his life, and this was reflected in all that he did.

Alexander Sharp was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Morris and Bella Sharp. He was the youngest of four children. When he was three years old, his family migrated to Perth to join other members of the family already in Australia.

Just three weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Zaida enlisted in the defence force. He went on to serve four years in the air force, including a stint on the island of Moratai, which is now a part of Indonesia. There are lots of photos of my grandfather from this period in his life. In these photos, my young Zaida is grinning sheepishly at the camera, often striking a pose next to one of his aircraft. He was a ruggedly handsome man, with broad shoulders and a stocky physique. He had a pencil thin moustache which made him look older than his early 20s. Looking through these photos, my aunty commented that my grandfather looked a bit like Clark Gable. I think she was wrong. I think Clark Gable looked a bit like my grandfather. Zaida was discharged from the air force in early 1946, with the rank of a Leading Aircraftman. He was honoured for his service with a Pacific Star.

A few months after he returned to civilian life in Perth, a relative in Melbourne, Barney Sharp, wrote to Alec offering him a job. He took up the offer, and relocated to Melbourne to work for one pound, 10 shilling a week as a salesman. He was not just selling any old product, though: he was selling women’s lingerie, a subject with which the young Alec was only vaguely familiar. This lead to one of Zaida’s favourite jokes later in life, telling people that he “used to work in women’s lingerie.”

Just a few years after his arrival in Melbourne, my Zaida met my grandmother. Their first meeting was at the Maison Deluxe in Elwood, who used to host Jewish dance events on Sunday nights. On New Years Eve of 1950, my grandfather proposed, and in October of that year they were married at Toorak Shule.

When my grandfather got married, he didn’t just marry Jean Silman: instead he married the whole Silman family. The first place the young couple lived together was at the Silman family home on Heidelberg Road in Fairfield. My Zaida also joined the Silman family business, working alongside his father-in-law Myer, and his brother-in-law Richard at the Silman Hosiery Mills in Brunswick. Zaida was a manager at the knitting mill, monitoring production on the factory floor. As part of his work he was required to work with dangerous equipment and this lead to his proudest academic achievement: a BA. Not a Bachelor of Arts, mind you, but a “Certificate in Competency as a Boiler Attendant”.

I think that it was here, in his ten years at the Silman Hosiery Mills, that Zaida learnt the work ethic that he later imparted upon each of his grandchildren. I imagine my young, newly married grandfather working hard on the factory floor amongst the heat and noise and mess, trying hard to build a good life for himself and his young family. Working here may not have been his calling in life, but it was one that he devoted himself to.

It was also during this decade that Jean and Alec became parents, with Gayle, then Michael and then Deborah coming into the world. Zaida always embraced his obligations as a family man, not just as a father and grandfather, but also as an older brother and uncle. As the youngest of four children, he was often doted upon by his older sisters Betty and Molly. Later on in life both Betty and Molly were sadly widowed, and Alec stood by them and provided them with the support they needed to get through difficult times. Alec was also a much admired uncle and cousin. As a father, his parenting style was well ahead of its time: whilst many dads of the 1950s and 60s were quite distant from their children, Alec was a hands-on dad who made sure he was a central part of his children’s lives. Friends of Gayle, Michael and Deb would sometimes note that they wished their own fathers were as hands-on as Alec.

In the early 1960s, the Silman Hosiery Mill burnt down. For Zaida, and his brother-in-law Richard, it was a case of one door closing, but another one opening. The two men went into the cinema business. They became the owner-operators of the Sunset Drive-In in Maribyrnong, showing remarkable business foresight given the growth both of movies and of cars. Their success in Maribyrnong led to them expanding to take ownership of the Coburg Drive-In, and then to a series of cinemas in the Melbourne CBD. At their peak, the two of them went on to operate the Australia Twin Cinema on Collins Street, the Bryson Theatre on Exhibition Street, and of course the one of which he was most proud, the Capitol Theatre, which still stands on Swanston Street nearby to the old site of the Capitol 2, another of their theatres.

Movies were my Zaida’s reel passion, if you’ll pardon the pun. Several times during the 1960s, he and my grandmother went over to Cannes for the Film Festival. Officially, he was there because he wished to discover the next big thing in movies so that he could show it at his chain of Melbourne cinemas. Truthfully, though, I think he went there because he loved the movies: the excitement and the elegance and glamour of the industry.

At his home in Willis Street, Balwyn, Zaida would regularly host movie screenings in the den. He’d set up a screen across the window and set up the projector in the kitchen. The Sharp house was the place to be on a Friday night, where all the kids gathered to watch new release films, often before they’d been screened at commercial cinemas.

He would have great pride in having the latest audio-visual technology. His home was the first to have a colour TV. He was a home movie buff long before camcorders and VCRs became fashionable. He would capture family events, achievements and holidays on 8mm film, edit it together and set it all to music. Later on in life, when video became the norm, he rigourously documented all of his grandchildren growing up. With his steady hand and keen eye for details, he was a budding film director. Every one of those videos has Zaida’s narration from behind the camera, commenting on the action and uttering small jokes with his bone-dry wit. He always knew the right way to capture the moment.

In the mid-1980s Alec and Richard sold the cinemas to Village. At this stage in his life my grandfather was 60, had three adult children and could have settled down to an early retirement. Such an active body and mind, though, wasn’t ready to rest just yet. The Silmans and Sharps bought into a retail store, City Centre Disposals on Elizabeth Street. This truly was a family business: Esther and Jean would do the accounting and Alec and Richard would manage the store. City Centre Disposals was a good business venture for my Zaida, but it also tied in nicely with his interest in gizmos and gadgets. Finally, it fitted in with his grandchildren’s growing desire for socks, boots, torches, tents and sleeping bags, all of which were stocked in abundance. Most Fridays, my Zaida and my father would meet for lunch to discuss the events of the week. This is now a tradition my dad and I continue.

My grandfather was 75 when he left the business and gave himself a chance to enjoy his retirement. He had both an active mind and an active body, and kept both of them busy. He would regularly play social tennis with friends, where he was a deadly left-hander. At home, he and Bobby bought a computer, and Zaida took the internet by storm. He was a vociferous reader of online newspapers, waking up each morning and devouring the New York Times and Jerusalem Post and regularly traded jokes back and forth via email. In retirement, Zaida also became active in Rotary, and through them volunteered at the Prahran City Mission to feed meals to local underprivileged children.

In the end, my Zaida’s body gave way before his mind did. I remember visiting him earlier this year with the DVD of my sisters’ batmitzvahs, which he had been too sick to attend. As he watched it with Bobby and I, he would identify familiar faces and put names to people whom Bobby and I were both struggling with.

Even in his dying days, Zaida did us proud. Last December the doctors detected a tumour on his brain, and he was given three months to live. But despite this diagnosis, he remained with us until last Friday. He will, though, remain forever in our hearts.

Zaida left the world in great peace. He left knowing that the three offspring from his family were themselves now a part of loving families of their own, and that the circle of life was now complete.

The movie of my grandfather’s life was an epic tale. The story is a swashbuckling adventure, across continents and through generations, with good humour and tragedy along the way. Our lead was a sensitive, caring man who led his life with great pride and dignity and earned the respect of all who knew him. And as the closing credits on his life roll, we can all be thankful that we were a part of the film: from the leading lady, to the supporting cast and the extras in the background. I think we should be thankful to the director for giving us such a story, and such a man.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Loony left and Israel

I had this one all set to go last week, complete with a cute-but-cocky EXCLUSIVE tag at the top. The violent radicalism of socialist anti-Zionism on campus has come to the fore this past month in the context of protests against Israel's war against Hezbollah.

Then The Age went and published the story:

The Socialist Alternative tactics are outlined in an in-house publication.

Discussing an incident at Melbourne, when a socialist stall was overturned, Daniel L. says the best response is to "immediately make a huge fuss — denounce them loudly, screaming ‘you're a murderer, you support George Bush's war, you support killing innocent people in the Middle East, you're fascist scum' and so forth. When we did this it had a huge polarising effect with people coming up afterwards to show their support. Often this was from the point of view of freedom of speech, rather than a willingness to support fighting Israel. But that doesn't change the fact that it is excellent terrain for us."

One writer, Vashti, says "two young Lebanese guys came up and asked if they could beat up the Zionists".

Daniel says of this: "They knew which side they were on and were willing to fight. We do not want to start fights with the Liberals ourselves, but if Lebanese people do it's a good thing and we're f---ing well with them."


The "in-house" publication at the centre of the controversy is a very revealing piece. You can access it here.

There's fun for the whole family in that thing. Like a newly-opened box of chocolates, everyone can reach in and grab their favourites. Here are mine:

Overall, by campaigning agreesively around the issue, being willing to stand up to the Zionists and try to create a fuss, we have had real success and been able to find a significant audience - mostly among Arabic or other non-white students. - Corey.

Corey demonstrates his opposition to racism by treating it as a decisive characteristic in the people he's seeking to attract.

(O)ur Students against War and Rascism (sic) meeting had about 50 popele at it!! We maanged to keep the zionists (sic) out, and the meeting was full of emotion and urgency. The one person who was shaking his head in disagreement during Dougals (sic) introduction was instantly labeled a zionist (sic) and rascist (sic) by Dougal, and shortly after this guy left, sensing how isolated he was there. -Francis.


Now there's a win for free speech and democracy.

Then there's this one here:

It's no surpise then, following the events at both Melbourne Uni and Mondash, that Zionists felt the need to asser their racism and fetish for genocide and mass slaughter of Arab people. - Chris dP.


Down side: glib accusation of genocide.
Up side: Chris dP reckons we deserve a capital 'Z'.

All this reinforces what we already knew about the far-Left: they're obsessed about Israel, certainly far out of proportion with its interest in other regions and potential injustices. Just why this is so is an interesting question. The traditional explanation is flat-out anti-Semitism. This is part of the story, but only a small part.

My theory is that since the end of the Cold War, the interest of the Left has shifted away from seeing the world in terms of people's relationship to the means of production, and toward people's relationship to colonialism. Look at the support the Left has extended for a variety of regimes in South America and Africa, many of whom are flatly anti-democratic, but all of whom have proud anti-colonial credentials. As Europeans, Americans or Australians, the Left see colonialism as the great stain on their nation, one that they need to repent for. The Middle East is seen as a frontier in the battle against colonialism. The Palestinians are posited as the indigenous people of the land, and the Israelis are the European colonial power. As with previous struggles against colonialism, there is no room for compromise: only the exit of the colonial power is considered an acceptable solution for the Left.

So long as this is the pervasive narrative that is used to explain the Middle East conflict amongst the left, opposition to Israel will remain fierce. The fact that this narrative is grossly flawed (the Jewish presence goes back millenia; the 'colonials' are the majority group with no alternative nationality; Israel is a minnow compared to its numerous large rivals) matters little so long as the radical Left refuse to consider it.

It's worth remembering that for its first several decades, many on the Left were supporters of Israel. The narrative at that time was that Israel was the plucky cosmopolitan democracy in a region of hostile states. Its existance was also symbolic of the worst excesses of the far Right.

It seems like a long long time ago.