Cultural Comment Politics

Chris Berg – Champion of the Outer Suburban Hero

We know that Andrew Bolt is the ugly side of Australia’s commentariat, dog whistling, slavering at the riots from last week and the rest. But he also has also positioned himself as a commentator who speaks for the little man, the battler, the poor bloke pecked to death by the “media elites”. Of which Bolt, of course, is not one. It is just a pose, a positioning, a falsehood made to allow for the untrammelled advance of corporate interests. One of his more strident defenders is Chris Berg, who has a regular presence in many forums. He is very different to Bolt in many ways – especially in terms of his attitude to migrants. He is, however, similar in terms of being a user of artifice, the self positioned champion of the oppressed consumer.

Berg is often thought of as one of the “nice” members of the IPA, one of the few who isn’t after Liberal Party preselection. He is, however, a defender of the neoliberal system that provides cheap milk, no matter the cost to farmers. He now also likes the outer suburban resident. The “bogan”, in modern parlance. As ever, his words are in italics.

McMansions a sign of our country’s wealth, not a lack of taste

IS THERE any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than ”McMansion”? This nasty term describes the big, new houses out in suburbs with names like Caroline Springs and Kellyville. McMansions, their nickname suggests, are the McDonald’s of housing – they’re super-sized, American and mass produced.

Interesting that he finds the addition of the “Mc” offensive and snobby, considering that he has long been a champion of multinational franchise companies like McDonalds. Surely to neoliberals, calling something “Mc” is a compliment. But that would undermine his desire to be seen as the person bashing these nebulous “elites” that use a convenient term to describe mass produced houses. And yes, they are mass produced from a template, hence the term. Maybe Berg should have suggested a better collective name for them. Curious also is the comment “suburbs with names like Kellyville”. It seems that Berg is inferring here that Kellyville is a new name, possibly named after a “Kelly”. This shows the new champion of the working class has an ignorance of history – Kellyville was a semi rural community long before it became the location of the large houses that have the current McMoniker.

Australians build the largest new houses in the world. The average size of a new freestanding home is 243 square metres. That’s 10 per cent larger than the average new American home. Naturally our big houses have critics. Sustainability advocates say McMansions are bad for the environment. Yet there’s more going on here. Because even the most high-brow academic critiques of McMansions seem to focus less on the houses and more on the people who live in them.

Terry Burke, a professor of urban studies at Swinburne University, wrote in The Conversation last year that McMansions breach the ”good principles” of environmental sustainability. Fair enough. But Burke doubled down: McMansions are very ugly, and their occupants, who also apparently own four-wheel-drives and send their children to private schools, are giving ”an ‘up yours’ message to the world”.

That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon. The word ”McMansion” is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life. It is all about culture – the inner city world trying to understand their strange, alien suburban cousins.

One critic speaks for all, it seems. Everyone is a sneerer about the inhabitants of these houses because one makes extrapolates a conclusion about the attitudes attached to the building of large houses. Berg should know better than that – producing more than one example. This is, however, a Bolt technique. Also added to this is the comment that critics of the oversized houses are exclusively from the “inner city”. That’s because on critic speaks for all. This is convenient for the Berg thesis that any commentary on the oversized houses of the 1990s can be dismissed because it comes exclusively from inner city snobs. That Berg himself is of the inner city and a relatively recent escapee from that world, it somewhat makes his critique a touch hypocritical.

Suburban living in general is more environmentally friendly than inner-city living. A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation (no fan of consumer capitalism) concluded that, even taking into account car use, ”inner-city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption”.

Someone who lives in a big home can still train to work, conserve energy or water, and, if they choose, live a fashionably carbon-neutral life.

This is a fact, but a conveniently cherry picked generalised one. It doesn’t take into account a number of factors. One is the high number of rental properties in the inner city – any tenant can tell you that landlords are loathe to make any changes to their properties, especially expensive environmentally friendly upgrades. After all, it’s the tenant who pays the electricity and water usage bills, not the landlord. In addition, it is expensive to retrofit environmentally friendly solar systems and water saving devices into older properties in the inner city.

It is true that houses in the outer suburbs have enthusiastically taken up environmentally friendly moves. Some of the newer houses are so only because of government regulation (against which Berg is a constant critic), others by the enormous cost of heating and cooling the vast empty spaces of these houses. One of the crimes against the environment committed in the 1990s was open plan living, with its ducted air-conditioning. That is why when governments subsidised solar panels and provided a very generous feed in tariff, people in the outer suburbs took up the offer (Berg would have shaken his head at this move as well). These days, however, with power companies playing hard ball and not providing reasonable feed-in tariffs, power companies gain free power while the outer suburban residents lose out. A triumph of capitalism and the free market, in the Berg paradigm.

It further shows Berg’s lack of knowledge of these new suburbs when he claims that residents of suburbs can “live a fashionable carbon neutral life” by catching a train. For the vast bulk of the “McMansion” suburbs, there are no nearby train lines, few bus services (due to the presence of private bus companies) and therefore the three cars are a frequent reality of “suburbs with names like Kellyville”. I invite him to see the daily traffic queue out of Glenmore Park, south of Penrith, each day. Residents there are lucky to get out of their suburb under 15 minutes each morning, due to the lack of public transport infrastructure.

Why do we build our houses so big? Well, Australia has a lot of space. But more importantly: we can. Australia is probably the richest country in the world. We have the fastest growing income in the world. We have the highest median wealth. Our only real competition in the rich stakes comes from city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong or oil plutocracies such as Qatar. And many Australians have decided to spend their riches on new homes.

In this logic, it’s fine to spend up, no matter the impact on the environment and the future. Just be as irresponsible as you like. Classic neo-liberal attitude towards the world.

Even if you don’t put much stock in income statistics, the size of our houses is – by itself – evidence that Australia is well off. Prosperity is about more than GDP data. Money isn’t everything. Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows living standards and adequate space are closely related. In rich Australia it’s understandable that many people desire extra living and storage space.

The issue here isn’t more living space – it’s excess living space which is eating up resources spent heating them up and cooling them down. Fortunately, the numbers of the so-called McMansion developments are reducing in the face of high energy costs and high carbon footprints. Suburbs like Oran Park in South – West Sydney have smaller blocks, thus smaller, more energy efficient houses that make less of an ongoing impact on the environment. It’s a pity, however, that instead of providing train access to the suburb, the O’Farrell Liberal Government is approving large pokie dens and CSG wells nearby.

This is where Berg’s argument about the modern houses turns a little silly. In order to indicate the place of the triumph of modern civilisation that is the 5 bedroom open plan house with home cinema, double garage and rumpus room – he uses a tenuous link to history in order to beat down his elitist opponents.

The people who best understand the relationship between housing size and living standards aren’t architectural academics or urban planners. They’re archaeologists.

Historians of the ancient world don’t have tables of wealth and income data. To estimate how rich societies were, they look at proxies. House are among the best and most accessible.

For instance, excavated homes are one way we know ancient Greece was far richer than other civilisations in the Mediterranean. According to the historian Ian Morris, between 800BC and 300BC the median Greek house size ballooned from 80 square metres to 360 square metres. And this wealth was shared among the free population, not concentrated among the ruling elite. Just as it is in 21st-century Australia. Large homes are now within the reach of moderate-income families. This is something worth celebrating, not deriding.

These moderate income family heroes are just like the Ancient Greeks – big houses are a reward, no matter the impact on the environment. He couldn’t be more patronising if he tried.

Antiquity had its share of sceptics about prosperity, too. Aristotle believed there was such a thing as too much wealth. The philosopher had determined what the ”good life” was, and he argued any excess property was unnatural.

It’s easy to imagine Aristotle tut-tutting about the big houses built by fellow Athenians. But it’s just as easy to imagine those Athenians ignoring his snobbery and enjoying the prosperity Greek society could afford.

Yes, let’s ignore Aristotle – what would he know? He should have stopped trying to dream of what a better, more satisfying balanced life would look like. He should have just grabbed a wine, ate a pig and watched some maxtreme wrestling in his private amphitheatre. No-one would remember him – but to Berg and his neoliberal cohorts, all that matters is consumption, not tomorrow.

Cultural Comment Politics

Nancy and the Cow – Gerard Henderson the Cherry Picker

The Preston Institute was named in kind-of honour of Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute. So it is somewhat fitting to me that after all this time, that Mr. Henderson is the topic of today’s blog.  Henderson’s Tuesday Herald piece about the Destroying the Joint business is a glaring example of Henderson’s cherry picking of quotations to support his tenuous accusations of hypocrisy. It also shows his mendacious cherry picking of past history to bash the ABC.  As ever, his article is in italics.

It’s not destroying the joint, but this double standard is a cow

Who would have thought that a throwaway piece of old fashioned Australian slang could, within a few days, become a matter of international interest? But that’s the modern world of instant communications , home to the ”IIA” syndrome. Meaning ”insult, indignation, apology” in that order.

“Good old fashioned Australian slang” – sounds a little like someone justifying “Abo” as a “good old Australian word”.  Language does change for a reason – especially language that was designed to denigrate the person being discussed.  Henderson, however, dismisses that requirement.  That isn’t conservatism, that is a reactionary response – as in “it was good enough in my day”. The same goes for his slight on “instant communications” and the IIA syndrome – positing the idea that apologies aren’t really necessary, especially if you use old slang.

By the way, people – I think this means that any old slang is fine now when you are referring to Gerard.

When walking my dog Nancy early Sunday evening, I turned on to BBC Radio’s World Today Weekend program. Feminist Jane Caro was banging on from Sydney about just how sexist Aussie blokes really are.

Hendo is sounding more like his Media Watch Dog self here – throwing in an irrelevant Nancy reference. Also, the reductive phrase “banging on” is not the usual type of language we see in Hendo’s Herald articles.  Denigration is fine when you are the one doing the denigrating in GerardLand.

Caro soon downloaded how 2GB presenter Alan Jones had recently declared: ”Women are destroying the joint.” The reference was to the former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon and the Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. Then Caro commented how one-time Liberal Party operative Grahame Morris had called 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales a ”cow”, after her interview with Tony Abbott.

Shocking, when you think about it. But not if you think for long. For starters, leftists such as Caro are invariably telling us that Jones is a mere shock-jock. Shock-jocks attempt to shock. That’s what they do. As to Morris, well he was born in country NSW. Calling a person a cow in such abodes is so common that the word gets an entry in G.A. Wilkes’s A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.

Caro being a “leftist” is Gerard’s usual labelling schtick – and it is always amusing to see Henderson defending the likes of Jones for his desire to shock people with offensive phrases and commentary. It’s amusing because as we shall see later, Henderson has a different view towards people who shock with offensive phrases when the subject is someone “of the right”. Hypocrisy is rich in HendoLand.

It’s also fine in HendoLand to deride someone if you’re from the country. They are Different out there, and that’s ok.  So ok, that is justifies a discussion of 19th Century literature.

Wilkes reported that in Three Elephant Power, ”Banjo” Paterson wrote that in Australia the most opprobrious epithet one can apply to a man or other object is ”cow”. Moreover in Bobbin Up, the feminist Dorothy Hewett had a character saying: ”I starched your petticoat stiff as a board, and it was a cow to iron.”

It fits the Henderson agenda to speak warmly of the 19th Century, considering that he seems to prefer 19th Century Industrial Relations policies. Indeed, he does seem rather at times to be a character created by Charles Dickens.

Sales soon activated the IIA syndrome. The Morris insult made, she quickly threw the switch to indignation, tweeting: ”I’d rather be a cow than a dinosaur.” An apology was inevitable. So Morris returned to the scene of his verbal crime on ABC Radio 702 to deliver a mea culpa. However, from what Caro told the BBC, there will be no forgiveness any time soon – despite the fact that no one suggests Sales even faintly resembles a cow.

In this piece of logic, Henderson is assuming that Jane Caro speaks for everyone – “no forgiveness any time soon”.  Maybe people have forgiven Morris for his bovine remarks. We won’t know because Caro speaks for all.  In any case, from what Hendo has been suggesting, there was no need for an apology – it’s fine for someone to call a woman a cow.

It seems the level of measurable insult declines if it is directed at a conservative – male or female – by a continuing leftist. At this year’s Mid-Winter Ball at Parliament House, Julian Morrow, one of the ”Chaser boys” (average age late-30s) referred to mining entrepreneur Gina Rinehart as ”the elephant not in the room”. Laugh? The room, full of journalists, joined in the joke – knowing it was a personal putdown.

And here Henderson returns to an event he will make frequent reference to for many, many columns – the Midwinter Ball. It’s his new “Latham lost control of both houses, he he he” moment.  It is entirely irrelevant to the case of Jones, Morris and Caro – but because Morrow belongs to this “leftist” tribe of Henderson’s mind, they are all the same.

Never mind that there are many amongst this “leftist” tribe who also object to the jokes about Gina Rinehart’s weight.  It doesn’t reflect well on opponents of Rinehart who focus on her physical appearance. It’s her politics and attempts to buy media influence that should be the goal.  Such attacks on Rinehart give people like Henderson, Devine and Bolt material for rebuttal – which they use in every non-sequitur moment possible.

Indeed Morrow’s tone is common for the public broadcaster. The likes of Caro said nothing when Bob Ellis, in January 2011, described the NSW Liberal MP Gillian Skinner on ABC’s The Drum Online as looking ”like a long-detested nagging land lady with four dead husbands and hairy shoulders”. Moreover, the ABC managing director, Mark Scott, defended the publication of the piece because it was ”particularly robust”. You can say that again.

Talking of lumping together, here we have responses to Bob Ellis. Apparently Jane Caro didn’t make any reference to Bob Ellis’ many tirades about women. Not that he’d actually know that, not being a user of Twitter. (Imagine, for a minute, Gerard on Twitter. It is one of Twitter’s biggest pities that no-one has ever done a good fake Gerard account). Jane Caro doesn’t speak for everyone, despite what Gerard says. There are always, however, crowds of people of both genders and largely from this “leftist” tribe decrying Ellis’ decrepit rants on Twitter.  Not that Gerard would mention that. It is by omission and selective quotation that Gerard is at his most intellectually dishonest and mendacious.

Also, it is apparently incorrect for the Drum to post work from a variety of sources. Gerard omits mention of the vast array of “right wing” material appearing on the site, as ever. He does mention, however, an old chestnut.  Marieke.

Earlier, Jonathan Green, the then-editor of The Drum, published Marieke Hardy’s description of the Liberal MP Christopher Pyne as a ”douchebag”. It was later spiked. In 2008, The Drum also ran a piece by Ellis referring to Hillary Clinton’s ”towering frigidity” and complaining (without evidence, of course) that she did not engage in a particular sex act. No word was heard from Caro at the time. In recent times, Green was promoted by the ABC and now presents the Radio National Sunday Extra program.

Back to Marieke and back to Ellis. Again, did Jane Caro tweet about this article? Even if she didn’t, does she have to comment on everything?  There were again a pile of people on Twitter objecting to Ellis. It’s almost become a meme.

But Henderson again excludes facts and those who would make his argument harder to make.  He also has another swipe at Jonathan Green – an editor frequently criticised for publishing many articles by members of think tanks like the IPA and former Liberal Party politicians.  Not that Henderson would mention that either. Here he integrates his greatest piece of spite – insinuating that Green’s employment on Radio National was in some way a poor decision because he published articles by Bob Ellis and Marieke Hardy.  It is breathtaking that Henderson would use an article in the Herald to continue this absurd vendetta based on the flimsiest pretext.

In March, Germaine Greer appeared on Q&A and urged the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to get over her (alleged) ”big arse”. Invited back on the program last week, Greer was at it again. Responding to an approved question, Greer declared Gillard has a ”fat arse” and advised her to ”wave that arse”. This was also not mentioned by Caro in her whinge on the BBC.

Did Jane Caro have to mention everything that has even been said on Australian TV in the BBC interview? Really?

It is true Gillard has been subjected to some sexist comments by the likes of the Liberal senator Bill Heffernan and the former Labor leader Mark Latham. This has been properly criticised. But there were few defenders of John Howard during his time as prime minister. In his 2005 book Run, Johnny, Run, author Mungo MacCallum variously called Howard an unflushable turd, a little c—t and a shithouse rat. Right now, MacCallum’s latest book is being promoted by the supposedly advertisement-free ABC.

I suppose Jane Caro was supposed to have commented on this as well.

But in spite of all the confected outrage, bad language has probably not proliferated. It’s just that what was once said in the pub now features increasingly in sections of the mainstream media and overwhelmingly online.

Has probably not proliferated. Probably not – Gerard’s not sure. What is he sure of is that it’s fine for people to use old slang terms – no matter how offensive – because Bob Ellis and Marieke Hardy used offensive words.

A sense of perspective might help. In the meantime, Morris should be counselled against using 19th century colloquialisms in these oh-so-sensitive-times. And Sales should desist from getting offended about not very much at all. At least it would free up the BBC for some real news from the antipodes.

Yes, perspective. The perspective of Gerard, running the ABC, non doubt. An ABC that wouldn’t be employing the likes of Jonathan Green nor running interviews with Jane Caro. Talking of Caro – if Gerard designed memes, this is how he’s see her:

And then there is this one…

Cultural Comment

The Martyrdom of the Famous – Trolling Matters when it Happens to Famous People

This past week the Twitter echo chamber has been alive with the sound of Trolling. Or at least people talking about trolling. For those who are frequent users of Twitter, internet forums or blogs, trolling is a constant presence. I used to be a member of a forum that discussed TV – as well as politics. I was constantly trolled, threatened and the like for having progressive views about politics and the environment. I took them seriously until I realised that the trolls were sad little people with no power who, frilled necked lizard style, puffed themselves up to look threatening.

The same has gone for people who tweet / blog / write about politics – constant trolling / threats and the like for a while now. With what is a blight on our society, some of the trolls have been vicious and have had a deep and lasting impact on people who attempt to make a difference in society. We saw two good pieces about such people in the last week. David Paris wrote about this well in the new Limited News. Helen Razer’s horrific stalking / trolling experience also provides pause for those unlucky enough to have their real lives interrupted and ruined as a result of having a media profile. Razer’s experience is one that shows us how serious and damaging trolling can become.

What is annoying, however, is that every so often, trolling is said to be vitally important and a concern – but only when it happens to really famous people. Those celebrities and politicians who don’t really tweet that much suddenly seeing what the rest of us non celebrities see on a daily basis. While I appreciate that Charlotte Dawson has gone through a rough time she didn’t deserve, it seems that the act of trolling is really only worthy of attention when it happens to famous people. The usual media and politicians pile in, blaming “anonymous” people on The Twitter – these same people showing that they have no understanding of how to use Twitter to block, report and ignore the trolls. How people can ask others to join in on the blocking and reporting.

So then come the torrent of articles and the like telling us that Trolling is Bad, people. The most laughable example of this was The Age bringing Catherine Deveny back from exile, saying how she deals with trolls. While I agree with a number of her points – including how to use Twitter to block them – she isn’t a good example of how to act on Twitter. Her schtick as a comedian and writer is to stir up people with outrageous comments and blanket statements (well, trolling). Many people I know stopped following her a while ago for that reason – she seems to like the negative reactions. This is why The Age are showing how out of touch they are, asking people like Deveny for feelpinions about trolling. It’s lazy work, finding a tweeter notorious for getting negative reactions. It’s the same when the ABC’s PM program asks Tommy Tudehope for his opinion as a “Social Media Expert”. Out of touch.

Fortunately, the echo chamber will die down on this trolling business – just as it will with that other pointless exercise of getting Alan Jones to recant his misogyny or have advertisers withdraw support because he is expressing the same views he has expressed for a very long time. The trolling will continue to non-famous people – and will damage people who don’t realise that there are sick people out there who are seeking attention. It will also damage those who aren’t used to any kind of attention, especially not negative attention. Then, every so often, when it happens to a famous person – the news, the blogosphere and the twitterati will participate in a circular wringing of hands for a few days.

As T.S. Eliot might have said

Let us go then online, you and I,
When the twitter feed is spread out against the screen
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted hashtags,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights on #auspol and #qanda
And Instagram photos from restaurants with oyster-shells:
Tweets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Destroying the Joint.