March 10, 2008
TRAVEL: May 05, AU Edition
RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
Gary A. Warner says that if you look beyond the sleaze, Amsterdam is full of treasures
Forget the canals. Forget the coffeehouses. Forget the acres of Rembrandts and Van Goghs. Forget all that wooden shoes and tulips and silly Hans Brinker and his silver skates stuff you ever heard, read or saw.
Before you go to Amsterdam, get your brain around the other Amsterdam. The in-your-face Amsterdam.
The CBD shops that sell postcards of genitals painted to look like Santa Claus. Where delivery boys on pink bicycles deliver marijuana seeds. Where porn and prostitution flourish in the most picturesque red-light district in the world.
Get ready for it, all of it, because it is going to smack you right in the head whether you like it or not.
How you react will determine whether you see Amsterdam as the most liberal, liberating metropolis in Europe or a beautiful old jewel wrapped in an oily envelope of sleaze.
For the better part of two decades, I fell in the latter category. Four times Amsterdam was penciled in on my itinerary, and four times I found reason to get out the eraser.
But when I realized I’d been to nearly every major European city – I had been to Brussels twice – I decided it was time to give Amsterdam a shot.
I’ve always had a long list of reasons not to go. But I came away with more reasons potential visitors shouldn’t repeat my mistake of waiting so long to experience the Dutch metropolis.
Amsterdam has a great airport. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Amsterdam gets off on the right foot.
With its one terminal that has just two levels, Schiphol is the easiest, most modern airport in Europe, a dream to navigate compared with the creaking facilities of London, Paris and Rome. A high-speed train leaves every 15 minutes for the 20-minute ride from the airport to the city center.
I don’t go to a city for its airport (if I did, I’d never go back to New York City). But Amsterdam’s is nonetheless a big plus.
The morning after I arrived in Amsterdam, I was fighting jet lag. I stepped out of my canal-side hotel and wandered the quays for hours.
The trees had lost their leaves, revealing glimpses through the bare branches of old houses that line the waterways. Homes were hung with Christmas lights and garlands – even many of the 2,500 houseboats along the canals were decked out in yuletide finery.
The heart of the city is the Grachtengordel, the three concentric canals that half-ring the city center. Viewing the mansions of the Herengracht, the bridges over the Keizergracht and the houseboats fronting the artists’ lofts of the Prisengracht is one of the most popular strolls for visitors.
In all, there are 47 miles of canals in Amsterdam, and each mile seemed to offer a postcard image: A woman carrying a cello on her back as she pedaled her bicycle toward the city center. A mother singing “Jingle Bells” to her kindergartner as they skipped by. Pre-teen boys bundled up against the cold playing soccer on a canal-side strip, making moves that would fool most Australian high school teams.
When you get thirsty, watch your language. Ask for a ‘coffee shop’, and you’ll get more than a caffeine buzz – it’s the popular term for places that legally sell marijuana and hashish. If you ask for a ‘café’, you’ll likely be sent to one of the 1,000-plus bars in the city. (Do go. Drinking is a wonderful pastime in Amsterdam. Try a light-tasting Hoegaarden or a dark De Koninck beer. Or better yet, a traditional jenever, a gin-like drink often infused with fruit or herbs.)
There are the grand cafés whose luxurious interiors will seem familiar to anyone who has walked into a fancy café in Paris, Vienna or Budapest.
I prefer the old, small taverns called “brown cafés” for their stained-wood interiors and dark, drapery-blocked doorways. Press past the curtain at Hoppe near the Spui Square, and you’ll go back three centuries in time. It’s a cramped but cozy place that’s especially good in the off-season, when the hordes of summer tourists aren’t trying to elbow in for a seat.
Another good choice is ‘t Doktertje, which means ‘the little doctor’, another timeworn spot where for less than $10 you can get a drink and sit for as long as you like. I brought along my journal and enjoyed wasting a couple of hours in the corner.
My favorite of all was In De Waag, a bistro and bar inside the last remaining gatehouse of the old city. This imposing brick pile was once the weighing house for goods, and later the site of the city’s executions. I had a bowl of spliter wtensoep, the traditional stick-to-your-gut pea soup with duck rillettes, washed down with two haze-reducing cappuccinos. Between bouts of reading the International Herald Tribune, I perused my e-mail and watched a Webcast of the surf at Pipeline in Hawaii from one of the café’s computers. The total of a bill is called a ‘rekening’. I smiled at the apocalyptic-sounding word for a tab so small.
Go ahead and make your pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum to see Vermeer’s ‘The Kitchen Maid’. Take in ‘The Sunflowers’ and ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ at the Van Gogh Museum. Just save time for some of the smaller museums around town.
I enjoyed my visit to the Amsterdams Centrum voor Fotografie on a narrow street just off Dam Square. The collections change constantly at the modernist glass-and-steel show space. One day it may be large-format photos juxtaposing cuts of meat or raw animal parts with flowers. Another day it might feature military-installation still lifes from around Europe.
If there is a must-see museum in Amsterdam, it’s Anne Frank Huis, where the young Dutch Jewish girl wrote her famous diary while hiding from the Nazi occupiers during World War II. She and her family were turned in to the police and she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just two months before the war’s end. Her diary describing her hopes while hiding has become one of the most widely translated books in the world.
One of the great charms of Amsterdam – albeit a sometimes dangerous one – is the sea of bicyclists making their way around the city. People wheel wildly around the cobblestone and brick streets as if they are invincible. There’s no headgear, and even at night there are young men and women wearing black on bicycles without lights. Lights and reflectors are just one more thing to get ripped off – Amsterdam logs more than 100,000 stolen bicycles a year.
With bikes parked outside where they are pelted by inclement weather and preyed upon by thieves, there’s little incentive to ride a fancy 10-speed or gizmo-laden mountain bike. Most are your simple one-speed models that you brake by backpedaling – not very different from what most Amsterdamers’ ancestors would have ridden.
It’s possible to rent a bicycle and make your way around the city as locals do. Just be prepared for some kidney-jarring old streets and maniac wheelers – especially during the morning and evening rush hours – who will be more than happy to run you right off the road.
Until World War II, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and one of the great treats of a trip to Amsterdam is to enjoy a rijsttafel – “rice table” – which is made up of up to two dozen small plates presented at the same time, including fried rice with pork called nasi goreng, and satay – skewers of chicken, pork and beef with peanut dipping sauce.
Beware the spicy sambal chili sauce. Two of the best places to experience the rijsttafel are Tempo Doeloe on Utrechtsestraat and Kantjil & De Tijger on Spuistraat.
For a more domesticated taste, try patat, the local version of what we call chips. The crisp, fresh, fried potato strands are only a distant culinary cousin to the greasy slabs served up in fast-food joints. They’re served from outdoor stands scattered all around town. One of the best is Vleminckx on Voetboogstraat. Locals have it with mayonnaise – so speak up when you order unless you want your order drowned in the white stuff.
There are a number of big baroque barracks on the main plazas and a few design-oriented boutique hotels like Blakes, the local branch of Anouska Hempel’s London-based temple of trendiness. But part of the charm of a stay in Amsterdam is cozying into a canal-side hotel that’s been sewn together from neighboring town houses.
I stayed at the Pulitzer Hotel, with its sparkling gold lights outlining the roofs of the 17th-century homes that form its facade. Though it’s affiliated with the Sheraton chain, there’s none of the artificial feel of a business hotel.
A perennial favorite among travelers is the Ambassade Hotel, a small hotel made from a string of canal houses not far from Spui Square. One that’s not in a lot of the guidebooks, but that I found charming, is Hotel van Onna, a nice canal-side budget hotel. The rooms are small and Spartan, but I loved its pretty Christmas ornamentation inside and out.
Another small hotel enjoying a lot of buzz these days is ‘t Hotel, an eight-room mansion turned hotel built in 1690 that houses its own antique shop. Rooms look out either on a canal or over the pretty gardens.
I’ve already got a list of what to explore next time. Yes, there will be a next time. First, a return in the spring – I’ll put up with the crowds to experience the flowers. I’ll wander the pretty Leidsegracht canal and go see the Poezenboot – a barge filled with cats – that’s moored on the Singel. I’ll drop into the Amsterdams Historisch Museum to see if it offers better insight into how the 17th-century stolid commercial town became the free wheeling place of today.
After so long avoiding Amsterdam, I want to go back. It doesn’t intrigue like Berlin or warm like Rome. It doesn’t have the treats of Paris or the ease of London. But it deserves better than the just-passing-through Brussels treatment.
FOOD: May 05, AU Edition
When the weather’s cold and the sun sets mid-afternoon, Eli Jameson finds brightness in the kitchen
It has always amazed me that when T.S. Eliot wrote the line, ‘April is the cruelest month’, he wasn’t talking about the onset of winter. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that he lived in the northern hemisphere. But for myself, April, with all its attendant rituals – the changing of the clocks, the airing of the jumpers – has always been a grim affair.
Somehow, it’s hard to be cheery when the sky turns black at what always feels like four o’clock.
To cope with this seasonal black dog, I’ve tended to take refuge in good food and cooking: after all, much better to stick a roast in the oven than your head in one. Not only does keeping the cooker on full-bore help heat at least one end of my drafty circa-1890s terrace house, but it also provides something in the neighbourhood of an acceptable substitute to that favourite summer pastime – namely, standing in front of the barbeque searing off ribeyes and drinking shiraz at 8:30pm, when it’s still bright and sunny.
Another advantage is that winter comfort food (for lack of a better, and less hackneyed, phrase) can be as simple or as complicated as one likes. For the home chef with a busy work schedule who still likes to muck about in the kitchen a few nights a week, this is a great advantage: if I’ve knocked off a bit early and am home by six or seven, then I might happily bread and fry some eggplants, knock up a red sauce, grate a few cheeses, and boil some spaghetti (perhaps even making the noodles myself, if the mood strikes) to wind up with a ridiculously huge platter of eggplant parmagiana that will keep me in lunches through the week. (Fill a good bread roll with a few rounds of the leftovers, wrap in foil and bake until gooey). Otherwise, tossing a tray of veggies in the oven to roast for an hour or so while pottering around the house tidying or simply watching the 7:30 Report over a quiet drink pays a myriad of dividends. Out of a concession to age and arteries, I don’t do this very often, but lately I’ve taken to tossing the results of this together with some pasta, cream, and good freshly-grated cheese (see recipe).
Another old standby for when people come by the house is a lamb-and-pasta dish I picked up when I lived in New York (and yes, I realize that complaining about a Sydney winter after spending one particularly bleak December-through-February living next to the East River does show a lack of perspective, but bear with me). This involves getting some lamb steaks, flattening them out, rolling and tying and them up into little parcels with mint, rosemary, and cheese.
I then brown the packets, set them aside, and make a rich red sauce in the same pan – deglazing, of course, with some hearty red wine. That done (and here’s the beauty: all this fiddly work can be done in the afternoon), I boil up some orichiette pasta, and serve it in bowls with some of the sauce and a couple of lamb rolls. If you’re out to impress, cut the lamb on a bias and arrange artfully on top of the pasta.
Whether simple or complicated, there is something restorative about the whole cooking process that shuts off the white noise of the previous twelve hours and makes for a welcome distraction from a bout of winter blues. As American novelist Nora Ephron once put it, ‘what I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.’
WINTER-WARMING BEAN SOUP
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian
This a great winter soup that’s not too complicated for a weeknight and packs a spectacular payoff. Plus, with the exception of the optional truffle oil, it costs virtually pennies a bowl to make. My family eats vats of this over winter.
• Approx. 250g Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
• 2 litres vegetable stock
• 2-3 peeled garlic cloves
• Dried mint, oregano and/or other dried herbs
• Olive oil
• 3-4 diced onions
• 2 starchy potatoes, peeled and diced
• Leaves of one silverbeet or one head rocket, thinly shredded
• Fresh parsley
• Salt and pepper
• Good extra-virgin olive oil (or, for something really special, truffle oil)
1. In a biggish, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the stock and the beans to the boil. Skim off the froth that comes to the surface, and add the garlic and dried herbs. Give it a good stir and simmer, loosely covered, for up to an hour or until the beans are tender. At this point, crush the garlic cloves against the side of the pan.
2. In a second, bigger pot, bring some olive oil up to a medium-high heat and add the onions and potatoes, stirring so that nothing sticks and everything picks up a bit of colour (about five minutes), with a shot of salt and pepper. Add the silverbeet or rocket, stir until just wilted, and pour the other pot with the beans over the whole affair. Bring it all to a boil, then simmer and stir occasionally for about half an hour.
3. Just before serving, toast some thick slices of good crusty country bread and set aside. Using a wooden spoon, mash some of the potatoes and beans against the side of the pot – this nicely thickens the broth. Check seasoning and ladle into bowls, and drizzle a little good extra-virgin olive or truffle oil over each dish. Serve with toasted bread.
Serves: an army.
ROAST VEGETABLE PASTA
Even though it takes a little while to roast the veggies, the actual work time involved in this pasta is virtually nil. And all the cream and cheese makes the healthy bits of the dish much more palatable.
• 250g dried pasta, such as fettucini, papardelle, or rigatoni
• An assortment of baby eggplants, fennel bulbs, zucchini, onions, et cetera – whatever looks good at the market that day, roughly chopped
• 200ml whipping cream
• 1 cup (or more) freshly-grated grana padano cheese
• Fresh parsley, for garnish
• Olive oil
1. Place the chopped vegetables in a roasting tray with a good glug of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss the lot around to coat, and place in a reasonably hot pre-heated oven. Meanwhile, place a pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
2. After about 45 minutes or so, check the vegetables – when they are good and soft and roasted, throw the pasta in the water.
3. Warm some cream in a wide saucepan, bringing just to the boil. When the pasta is a few minutes away from being al dente, remove the vegetables from the oven and toss with the cream. Add a good handful of the cheese.
4. Drain the pasta, and toss with the cream, vegetables, and cheese. Serve in warmed pasta bowls and sprinkle on some more cheese and fresh parsley.
May 05, AU Edition
TRAFFICKING IN TEARS
Slavery was supposed to be a thing of the past. But in the dark corners of Australia, it is still flourishing – and as SHAUN DAVIES reports, despite recent efforts the government is losing the fight against the devastating trade in human property
It’s a story that’s guaranteed to break your heart. A 22-year-old law student from Thailand, promised a job in a restaurant where she can legitimately earn millions of baht (the Thai currency), flies into Australia in late November 2002 with high hopes of saving up enough money to buy a car.
But within 24 hours, the student’s situation takes a nightmarish turn. Instead of starting work in a restaurant, she is taken to a house in Surry Hills, handed a g-string and informed that she owes her new employers $200,000.
She has been bought to work as a prostitute – and she can’t leave until she pays the money back.
Shipped from brothel to brothel, she is forced to have sex with up to 20 men each day. If clients refuse to use condoms she can’t turn them down. At night she is locked in a house with fourteen other girls. She begs clients for help – and exchanges phone numbers with some of them – but no-one comes to her aid.
So on the afternoon of January 5, 2003, the student makes a decisive move. She convinces her manager to let her use the brothel’s telephone, telling him she wants to order a pizza. Locking herself in a bathroom, she dials the number she found in the ‘big yellow book’: 000.
‘I want police help me, understand?’ she tells the operator. ‘People come here, lie on me, work in store... Help me, I want to go home, OK?’
The manager bursts into the cubicle and ends the call abruptly, but police raid the brothel later that day and take the student away to a woman’s refuge.
The student’s disturbing allegations, heard recently in open court in Sydney, led to the arrest of two women alleged to own the brothel, and another man alleged to have managed it. All three have pleaded not guilty two charges including exercising ownership over a slave, knowingly conducting a business involving sexual servitude and causing a person to remain in sexual servitude. They are facing jail terms of up to 25 years.
In some ways the case is a landmark – the first of its kind since current legislation against human trafficking was introduced in 1999. It is also the first since the Federal Government allocated $20 million over four years to combat sex slavery in 2003, following public pressure after the death of a trafficked woman named Puontong Simaplee in Villawood detention centre.
This substantial package funded a new federal police task force, as well as education programs for police and immigration officers. The Government also placed an official in Thailand with a brief to combat sex slavery and created new visas that allow trafficked women to stay in Australia. (See sidebar.)
A spokesman for the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Chris Ellison, told Investigate that the government has been ‘doing its utmost to fight this crime through concerted domestic, bilateral, regional and international efforts’.
But those who work closely with trafficked women believe much more still needs to be done. And it seems that the crooks are getting smarter – finding methods to avoid detection and legal loopholes to escape prosecution.
So are we winning the fight against sexual servitude and slavery? And if not, what more can we do?
Besides weapons and drugs, international crime syndicates are increasingly trading in a less risky commodity: human beings. International estimates of total trafficking levels (which includes trafficking for the labour market as well as the sex industry) vary wildly, but the US government believes the total figure is somewhere in the vicinity of 600,000 to 800,000 persons ever year. Interpol and the United Nations both rate the issue as a top priority.
Some experts say that the rise in trafficking for sexual servitude to developed nations has been brought about by demand. Women from rich countries don’t want to work in the sex industry, but at the same time more men are using sex workers, so demand is outstripping supply – and organised crime is filling the gap.
Others say the push is coming from the supply side. Sex workers from poor countries want to migrate to developed nations but cannot do so legally. So they look to traffickers to sneak them into a country of choice.
While we know for certain that Australia is a destination market for trafficking, it is impossible to know exactly how many women are brought here each year, says University of New England academic Kerry Carrington.
‘For a start it’s difficult to quantify any form of crime – it’s always going to be hidden. But an added issue here is that it’s not only the criminals. The victims may also hide the crime because of other consequences,’ she says.
A recent Government report claimed there were probably less than 100 trafficked women in Australia. However, Carrington is more inclined to agree with groups who put the figure much higher – around 1000 women every year.
Carrington has one major gripe with the Government’s policy on trafficking - criminal justice visas are only granted to women when there’s a strong chance their evidence will lead to a successful prosecution. Otherwise they are repatriated to their home countries and back into danger when the syndicates that trafficked them seek revenge.
‘I think it’s dubious to say that this meets our obligations under human rights laws,’ she says.
‘As there is no guaranteed migration outcome for assisting a prosecution, there is still little incentive (for the women) to assist prosecutions. Those victims unable to assist the prosecution of traffickers for fear of reprisal, either against themselves or their families abroad, or other reasons, remain unprotected.’
Senator Ellison’s spokesman told Investigate that the visa regulations were fair and ‘provide support to people in genuine need
of protection and who are assisting law enforcement agencies with their investigations’.
But in an interview with the ABC in 2004, the Senator was more direct: ‘We don’t want to make it too attractive for people to come here because they’ll think that they’ll get very good benefits and
so they can come here and then claim to be a victim and enjoy
But Carrington says that each woman’s case should be critically assessed while she is on a bridging visa. If her case meets a civil level of proof (that is, it seems true on the balance of probability), they should get a longer-term visa.
Shirley Woods, an outreach worker for Australian NGO Project Respect, works with trafficked women on a daily basis. She believes that the approach of police and immigration officers has come a long way since the days of kicking down brothel doors and shipping illegal workers out as soon as possible, though Investigate was supposed to meet with an allegedly trafficked woman from Thailand for this article who was picked up by DIMIA and deported before we could speak with her.
However, Woods says there’s some way to go before officers can handle cases of trafficking with the deft sensitivity that would make trafficked women trust them.
‘I think it’s a matter of more people knowing the right questions: “Do you have your passport?”, “Where do you live?”. A lot of women are shipped from brothel to brothel and don’t know their address,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of questions you can ask.’
In October 2003, the AFP delivered an intensive four-week course in dealing with trafficking to senior investigators from DIMIA, state police agencies, customs and the tax department. Woods believes these education programs will eventually have an impact.
‘It’s very difficult because it’s almost an instinctive thing. So I think that as more immigration and police officers work with trafficked women the situation will get better.’
The jewel in the crown of the Government’s trafficking package is the Transnational Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking Team (TSETT) – a kind of sex-slave commando force which the AFP says is ‘modelled on the successful narcotics strike team approach, with intelligence-driven investigations and the flexibility and capacity to respond quickly to the highest priority cases.’
It’s difficult to quantify how effective this task force has been. We do know that the AFP has conducted 38 investigations into sexual servitude and slavery-related offences since 2003, and that a total of 15 people are currently facing charges for these crimes.
The AFP has not responded to queries about the current level of trafficking in Australia. But Project Respect’s Shirley Woods says she has come across more trafficked women since the taskforce was established (which, she points out, may just be chance). She believes traffickers are getting smarter.
‘There’s been a huge shift away from Thai women and towards Korean women recently because they can get student visas here. The whole payment system and everything has changed,’ she says.
In one recent case, Woods says, trafficked women in a Melbourne brothel were actually given one-third of the money they earned. But of this third, an extra portion went to the brothel owner to service the woman’s debt, and another portion was given to an ‘interpreter’ who couldn’t speak Korean. All up, the women still only kept one-ninth of the money they earned.
‘I think the traffickers have sat down and had a think about what the legislation means and how they can get around it,’ says Woods. ‘I’m interested in how they’re getting around the education issues associated with student visas - maybe they’re paying off [English language] schools.’
Kerry Carrington also believes that the traffickers have changed tactics. ‘I’ve heard anecdotally that the modus operandi of the traffickers is now to circulate the women and move them along, so that they can avoid being detected,’ she says.
Some advocates believe a radical approach is needed to defeat trafficking - issuing temporary visas to sex workers so that they can legally work in Australian brothels.
Fiona Patten, spokeswoman for the Eros Foundation, says giving sex workers temporary visas would completely undercut the trafficking market. She points out that many Thais pay huge amounts of money to legitimate employment agencies to organise a job and a visa in Australia – at least as much as trafficked women pay to brothel owners. The problem, Patten says, is that sex workers can’t go to a legitimate employment agency.
‘From the industry’s point of view, we see sex work as valid work. By enabling women to come out here and work legally in a system where you can ensure that they’re working in safe conditions, where you can ensure that they’re not being exploited, is that not a better thing?’
However, Patten admits that any political party who took up this idea would be committing electoral suicide.
Ranged against Patten and other sex industry groups (such as the Scarlet Alliance and SWOP) are abolitionists who say that cutting demand by outlawing prostitution is the only way to stop trafficking. Project Respect president Kathleen Maltzahn is a careful advocate of this position.
‘We’ve got to go back to asking who prostitution works for – and it’s not the women who do it,’ she said in a 2004 lecture. ‘Prostitution is set up for men. That’s what trafficking tells us so clearly. When there are enough women who agree to do prostitution the industry will use them, but if there aren’t... the industry brings women in, with absolute disregard for their choices, desires, hopes.’
‘We need to stop talking about prostitution as if women’s choices make it happen and start asking about men’s choices. Without this work trafficking will continue unabated.’
In the US, a different group of abolitionists are dominating the trafficking debate – the Christian right. Groups such as the International Justice Mission have the ear of President Bush, who has pledged $150 million to eradicating sex slavery over two years. But sex industry lobbyists are vehemently opposed to the abolitionist approach. It’s supply, they say, not demand, which is driving the trafficking market.
‘I think when you consider (the abolitionist) argument in a global context it doesn’t make sense,’ Scarlet Alliance president Janelle Fawkes says. ‘Many people travel for work, often to another country where the earning potential is greater.’
She gives the example of Burmese women who migrate to Thailand to do sex work, which she says does not make sense in terms of demand.
‘Trafficking happens not because of an unmet demand by clients, but a demand by sex workers who seek to enter Australia to work in the sex industry. It’s a worker’s market, not a client’s market.’
As Investigate goes to print, the trial of Tran, Qi and Xu is still in progress. Another slavery-related trial has just begun in Melbourne and three further matters are ready to go before the courts.
Compare this to 2003, when only one person had ever been convicted of sexual servitude offences in Australia: Melbourne brothel owner Gary Glazner, who made an estimated $1.2 million peddling women to the sex industry. For his crimes, Glazner (who was tried under the Victorian Prostitution Control Act 1994) received a pathetic $30,000
fine and a 30-month suspended sentence.
Although the situation has improved, trafficking will never be completely stamped out unless there is a major shift in our approach to the sex industry as a whole. If there is a market for trafficking (whether supply or demand-driven), criminals will always find ways to exploit this – no matter how well-trained the AFP’s special taskforce is.
While a controversial idea, a legitimate working scheme for foreign prostitutes might cut the market from beneath the trafficker’s feet, and give these women a chance to come to the country for a short time and provide a regulated working environment. But realistically, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Australia will embrace the idea of visas to foreign prostitutes. For now we’ll have to rely on more basic initiatives and the experts agree that the Government is heading down the right track. It just needs to walk a little further and a little faster.
WHAT’S IN THE PACKAGE?
The Government’s $20 million package attempts to deal with attempts deal with trafficking through a number of initiatives, including:
* The establishment of the AFP’s Transnational Sexual
Exploitation and Trafficking Team – there have been AFP 38 investigations into trafficking since 1 January 2004.
* The creation of a new position to combat trafficking - Senior Migration Officer Compliance (SMOC). This position is based in Thailand, which has until now been the source country for most women trafficked into Australia.
* Changes to visa regulations. Women who may have been involved in trafficking are now granted a bridging F visa which allows the AFP to assess their case. If a woman can assist the AFP in a prosecution she is granted a criminal justice visa. Women deemed to be in some kind of danger if they return to their home country may be granted a witness protection visa (trafficking).
* Education of immigration and police officers to ensure that trafficking is recognised and that women are not deported before they can give evidence.
* Proposed amendments to legislation that will bring Australian law more closely into line with UN trafficking protocol. These have been tabled in the senate and are under consideration.
FIRST DRAFT: May 05, AU Edition
Even Kofi Annan’s got his own weblog now…
MARCH 21 2005
Man, this investigation into Kojo and me is a real drag. It’s total pressure, 24-7! I thought having this position meant I wouldn’t have to put up with this kind of thing. Like, dude, where’s my diplomatic
But no, they have to investigate everything. Everything, going back aaages. Like, hello! Cotecna? Who are they? I don’t remember.
And that Paul Volcker guy. Man, he is such a wingnut.
The worst thing is that I appointed him. Sheesh. What was I thinking?
Hey, Volcker! Investigate this.
posted by GenSec at 12:26 PM
Permalink Comments (124) Trackback
MARCH 24 2005
Man, this Cotecna thing is really ruining my reputation. Like, I just ran a Google ego search. I’m a pariah! Not so long ago I was a superstar on the world stage. I was pretty fly (for a black guy). Not any longer. I’ve gone from hero to zero in, like, days. This is sooo not happening.
Not that I’m in this just for the glory, mind. I just want to do my job. And it’s one helluva tough job. No, really! It’s not all receptions and champers and canapes, you know. There are medals of honor to receive; genocide reports to quash. (Like, words are important, dude. There really is a difference between mass murder and genocide, okay? Trust me.) Still, when all the drudgery is done I can enjoy the best part: I get to be concerned. I just love that ... Being concerned – it’s a buzz, man!
That’s why I hate all this controversy. I want to be concerned about the world. I don’t want the world being so concerned about me. You dig?
posted by GenSec at 4.34 PM
Permalink Comments (67) Trackback
APRIL 1 2005
It’s April Fool’s Day, alright. Now the World Bank is headed by a neo-con.
I had to put up with sniping from that guy and his cronies for, like, years man! “You’re too weak with dictators ... Act on Iraq ... Do something, for God’s sake” ... Etc.
But the UN couldn’t win, could it? When I did nothing, the Yanks had a field day. But if I’d said go in and kick butt, the member states would have gone all medieval on my ass. As I posted at the time: Saddamned if you do. Saddamned if you don’t.
Why won’t they shut up about “oil-for-food” ...
Hey, Wolfie and Co., read my lips: I did not have financial relations with that man Saddam Hussein!
But now I’ve got to have financial relations with Wolfie?
Jeebus, what a drag. I might just quit after all.
posted by GenSec at 9.40 AM
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HEALTH: May 05, AU Edition
TYPE-A FOR EFFORT
A little hard work never killed anyone, but coping poorly with it can do some real damage
Keep working like this and you’ll give yourself an ulcer!’ The year is 1982, and all they do is work, work, work. Late into the night and early into the morning on this damn fool scheme of theirs. These are driven men, mavericks, pursuing their research until finally one of them gets an ulcer.
And what was the grail these blokes were chasing? Proof that stress and personality are not the major factor in the development of peptic ulcers. The men were Australian doctors J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, and they intentionally gave Marshall an ulcer to prove their hypothesis, namely, that the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori (and not worry or stress) is what causes ulcers. It took a long while to persuade the medical world of this, so it is little wonder that many amongst us still believe stress causes ulcers, amongst other things.
Science has been hard at work on the stress-and-health connection for some time now, and it’s now very clear that – for rats – being confined in a small cage with lots of other rats, an unpredictable food supply, and the odd electric shock is definitely not a healthy way to live.
Human studies are not nearly so conclusive. For every study that sees a link, another one doesn’t. Time for some hair-splitting.
So-called ‘type-A’ personalities are hostile, impatient and competitive. Picture a red-faced fellow running across the road (can’t wait for the traffic lights), yakking into the mobile phone that is wedged between his shoulder and ear while at the same time shoveling a burger and coffee into his mouth. This type of individual is often described as a workaholic. He (or she) is also probably very good at his or her job, very likely feared and reviled by employees and underlings and, in all probability, proudly describes himself (or herself) as a ‘Type-A personality’. Everyone he or she knows warns them of their health risk. (Then again, when did you last meet someone who described themselves as calm and worry free? I just took an on-line stress test, and apparently my low score indicated that I am in severe denial about my stress. I think they were trying to sell me something.)
But if this hard-charging type-A isn’t destined for a stomach ulcer, then what kind of problems does he or she face? Although it runs contrary to conventional wisdom, having a ‘Type-A’ personality in itself has also repeatedly been shown not to cause heart disease. (In hospitals the joke is that this must be true, because cardiologists do not, as a rule, have particularly sanguine personalities). More often than not, it is how people choose to cope with the stress that brings them to grief.
Aggressive and high-energy workaholics do many of things to deal with their stress, and smoking and drinking (often a lot) is at the top of many a type-A’s list of hobbies. Thus high stress often appears to cause illness, when in fact it doesn’t. The stress causes bad behaviours, and the bad behaviours cause health problems.
Did I mention that there would be hair-splitting?
But this is a useful distinction, because behaviours like smoking can be changed. Of course, if society stopped rewarding angry men who work hard with nice jobs and lots of money that kind of behaviour might also diminish, but that’s another story.
The counter-argument that turns this on its head is one I hear a lot, and basically goes like this: ‘If I don’t deal with my aggressive feelings by yelling at people and slamming my phone down, all those repressed feelings will make me even more sick, even give me cancer’. Nice try, but no. Instead, it’s the same old story: genetics, diet, environment, smoking, booze, plus some other factors for some specific types, all cause cancer. Personality doesn’t.
But, despite the lack of a connection to heart and stomach problems, too much stress is definitely not healthy. Remember learning about the body’s fight or flight response in high school biology? Sense danger; flood body with stress hormones like adrenaline; in crease heart rate; make breathing rapid and shallow; constrict arteries near the skin (to curtail blood loss); increase blood pressure; release energy stores. All very, very good things to do if you happen to be cornered in a dark alley or need to flee a lion on the African veldt. But these physical responses to stress are of very little help in most offices – unless it is a particularly bad day.
One stress hormone that does have an impact on health is cortisol. This stuff raises blood pressure, increasing the work the heart has to do (fine in the short term, bad in the long) and suppresses the immune system, which means that it can lead to more infections and the like. Lots of cortisol, lots of the time, leads to lots of irritating colds and flus. So chill out. Take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. Now try to keep your blood pressure low and brace yourself for one last little nag.
And don’t even bother with ‘I don’t have time to…’ speech. If you’re a busy person, you don’t have time to be sick either, so take the time to look after yourself now.
Here’s the deal: Stress isn’t good or bad. But lots and lots of stress is bad. Go fix it so that disasters don’t happen constantly in your life, or failing that, teach yourself to cope better when they do. Practice saying the words, ‘thank you for telling me,’ instead of ‘what!!!!! How the !@#$...’ This works equally well for ‘Mummy, the dog did a poo on the sofa’ as, ‘Sweetheart, I love you, but I’m moving to Rio with the tennis pro’.
Also, stop doing all the things that really will shorten your life, and maybe even make it unpleasant while it lasts. Sorry. Let’s do that again. The cardiologist is going to say that. I’m going to say this: do one thing to be healthier. Maybe it’ll be enough. Maybe it will lead to other lifestyle changes. If you know you eat terribly, and you don’t want to change, at least take the odd vitamin. Run to the shops for your smokes, instead of driving. Drink with dinner, instead of for breakfast, that kind of thing. For my money, I’d start with exercise.
Even if it feels terrible the first twenty times, it will actually start to make you feel good. You will enjoy it, your mood will brighten, and you’ll sleep better. Maybe you’ll smoke less and eat healthier as well. It’s also easier to start doing something and make a new habit than it is to break an old one. If you think you might be getting a bit overwhelmed with stress or have some niggling physical problem, see the doctor. She’ll probably say what I said, only in a bossier tone, but better safe than sorry.
Look, you know what you’ve gotta do, so do I. I’m just going out for a run. To the shops…
SCIENCE: May 05, AU Edition
SMART OF DARKNESS
You’d have to be pretty dim to buy the latest scare story being pushed by the greenies
Nobody knew it at the time, but thirty years ago the environmental movement suffered the greatest blow to its credibility since a grumpy 19th Century Scottish churchman named Malthus made his now-infamous prediction that, due to a lack of ‘moral restraint’, the world’s population would soon outstrip food supplies. For it was on 28 April 1975 that the American magazine Newsweek ran a story on the new ecological scare that was sure to doom the human race: not overpopulation, but global cooling.
That’s right, cooling.
Here’s how their package, ‘The Cooling World’, began: ‘There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production–with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now. The regions destined to feel its impact are the great wheat-producing lands of Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the North, along with a number of marginally self-sufficient tropical areas – parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina and Indonesia – where the growing season is dependent upon the rains brought by the monsoon.’
What a difference a few decades make. Not only is the U.S.S.R. a thing of the past, but global cooling is an all-but-forgotten article of the greenie faith, consigned to the dustbin of embarrassing eco-history – along with predictions that the world would run out of fossil fuels by the year 2000 and that mass famines would trigger global conflagrations and economic catastrophe throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Instead, doom-mongers have spent the last decade focused on global warming, using language surprisingly similar to that of Malthus (‘an angry Gaia will smite us for not having the moral restraint to resist buying 4WDs’). And in a day and age when the Bureau of Meteorology can’t reliably predict on Thursday whether Saturday’s barbeque will be a washout, the Kyoto treaty holds a gun to the heads of Western economies – all based on what are essentially some very long-range weather forecasts.
Which is why the latest nightmare scenario to make headlines around the world is particularly – one might even say darkly – amusing. According to a handful of scientists, life on Earth is actually getting dimmer. Here’s how a BBC report recently aired in Australia put it: ‘Noticed less sunshine lately? Scientists have discovered that the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface has been falling over recent decades.
‘If the climatologists are right, their discovery holds the potential for powerful disruption to life on our planet. Already it may have contributed to many thousands of deaths through drought and famine, and that even the direst predictions about the rate of global warming have been seriously underestimated.’
It gets better. According to this handful of experts (cut from the same cloth as the boffins who, thirty years ago, predicted we would all be taking ski holidays in Fiji when not clouting each other over the head for the last handful of maize), global dimming is a double-edged sword. This sudden bout of planetary mood lighting is bad, they say, but without it things would be a whole lot worse: ‘By allowing less sunlight to reach the Earth, global dimming is cushioning us from the full impact of global warming, climatologists say. They fear that as we burn coal and oil more cleanly, and dimming is reduced, the full effects of global warming will be unleashed.’ In other words, when we’re not making the world hotter, we’re making the world … cooler. We’re damned in both the doing and the don’t-ing, but either way, as the narrator of the BBC’s program on dimming put it in the conclusion, ‘we have to take urgent action to tackle the root cause of both global warming and global dimming - the burning of coal, oil and gas.’
We may have to make very difficult choices about how we live and how we generate our electricity. We have been talking about such things for 20 years. But so far very little has been done in practical terms. The discovery of global dimming makes it clear that we are rapidly running out of time.’
This is the same sort of end-is-nigh apocalyptic language that environmentalists (and their philosophical ancestors) have been preaching for centuries. Malthus told us all to practice some “moral restraint” and stop procreating, lest we all die from mass starvation. Today’s greenies frame the debate in the same moral terms even as journalists and scientists vying for headlines and grant monies out-do each other in trying to freak the public out.
Global dimming is the latest attempt to give some scientific ballast to global warming, which has never borne a lot of close scrutiny.
Indeed, many environmentalists now like to call it ‘climate change’ instead – a deft semantic shift that means just about any freak storm can now be blamed on John Howard and George W. Bush. And it is pretty clear that the science behind dimming is overhyped bunk as well; as Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies put it recently after seeing the BBC documentary, ‘The suggested “doubling” of the rate of warming in the future compared to even the most extreme scenario [is] highly exaggerated. Supposed consequences such as the drying up of the Amazon Basin, melting of Greenland, and a North African climate regime coming to the UK, are simply extrapolations built upon these exaggerations … while these extreme notions might make good television, they do a disservice to the science.’
So what is it that is so attractive about global dimming to its supporters? As with Malthus, the answer is not so much scientific as moral, and an underlying discomfort with modern life and all its trappings. Just look at some of the other rhetoric of radical greens these days: people consume too much, waste too much, products come in too much packaging, our food comes from too far away and all this divorces us from one another and the Earth. But this ignores the fact that all this economic activity is actually good for people and, ultimately, the environment: when I got married four years ago in New York City, for example, New Zealand lamb was the main course. This may horrify some as wasteful, but their outrage ignores the fact that those few dozen plates of lamb, multiplied countless times every day, help pay the wages of hundreds of farmers, abbatoir workers, drivers, pilots, fuelers, mechanics, loading dock workers, chefs, and so on – in other words, the sort of ordinary people whom we are supposed to be more in touch with.
The problem with environmentalists is that, after thirty-plus years, it gets awfully hard to take anything they say seriously. Yes, the outdoors is lovely and nature spectacular, and no one wants their kids to grow up breathing thick and smoggy air – which is why economic development is the key to cleaning up pollution, not relying on a bunch of spurious climate models and a distrust of capitalism. When people are allowed to get rich, they can not only desire a cleaner environment, but do something about it as well.
In the meantime, the environment is too important to be left to environmentalists.
TECHNOLOGY: May 05, AU Edition
Josephine Cooper reports that Pioneer’s latest plasma TVs are finally living up to the technology’s promise
Plasma screens are the trophy wives of the television world. Seductive in their shiny slimness, deep-pocketed men (often in league with their partners) have been damning the cost and throwing over their old, boxy boob tubes for these new, younger, skinnier models from almost the first day they came on the market.
But that doesn’t mean these new relationships have always been happy: along with the initial entry price, flat-panel plasma units generally require expensive accessories such as tuners to get them out of bed in the morning. What’s more, while they start out as bright young things, the dirty little secret of this wall candy is that they are also subject to burnout: leave it on too long, or with the contrast set too high, and the bright, vibrant colours of the unit’s first heady days start to go drab and fade. Furthermore, from their first day out of the box, plasmas have a problem handling dark colours, especially black, properly: because every gas cell in a plasma unit is on all the time, and because there is no black backdrop as in a standard TV, it takes a lot of power to come close to displaying the dark range of the spectrum properly. Even at the best of times, plasma owners have for years had to live with blotchy being the new black.
Plasmas have what might be called a long memory as well; many users report that just a couple of weeks of watching, say, CNN is enough to burn the network’s logo into the screen for good. (Think of how a bank’s logo and welcome message is always faintly visible in an ATM screen, no matter what is being displayed. Now imagine having spent several thousand dollars for the privilege of that burn-in.) Part of this has been avoidable by keeping contrast set low and the channels flipping during the first few weeks of a unit’s life, when such burn-in is most likely to occur, but until recently, it’s also just been a problem that plasma users have had to either learn to live with or figure out tricks to avoid.
And in what may be the ultimate insult, many plasma buyers are discovering that despite all the money they spent on them, their new loves aren’t really up for a long Sunday afternoon watching sports.
Although manufacturers have been struggling with the problem for years, until recently, most plasma units suffered from all sorts of unpleasant (and unpleasant-sounding) syndromes when they tried to handle fast-motion action of sport, such as jitters and smearing.
Unlike a standard TV, the plasma screen simply can’t keep up with the action, which means that on many units, a flying football or cricket ball will appear like a comet, complete with tail. It can also mean problems with lip-syncing: depending on the quality of image
being fed it, sound doesn’t always keep up with motion, and everyone starts to look like they’re in a poorly-dubbed old Japanese movie.
On the flip side, the good news is that this young technology is great with the kids: plasmas are absolutely tailor-made for digital productions such as Pixar movies, which explains why flicks like Finding Nemo and Toy Story get so much play at the electronics retailers.
It’s all almost enough to make a plasma buyer want to go back, tail between his legs, to his old conventional unit: ‘I want you back. I’m sorry I dallied with that new technology. Remember all the great times we had watching the Ashes together?’
Or, as one online commentator put it recently, ‘Plasma TVs cost a hilarious amount of money, and are ridiculously non-durable. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to my still-good-looking, several-years-old rear projection big screen TV.’
Plasma screen manufacturers have started to realize that they have a real problem, both in terms of the real limitations of their product and, just as if not more important in the tough world of the marketplace, reputation. Makers of plasma units at all price and size levels are all waking up to the fact that they need to either lift their game, or get out of it. Sony, for one, has reportedly decided to withdraw its plasma screens from the market, and Fujitsu has sold half its own plasma business – there were just too many problems.
On the other hand, electronics maker Pioneer has decided to take things in the other direction and break through some of the barriers that have become all too apparent in the flat-panel market and create what might be called next-generation plasma TV. And it seems to be working: their latest models, (the PDP505HD and PDP435HD, coming in at 50 and 43 diagonal inches respectively) received top honours from EISA, the largest editorial multimedia organisation in Europe.
Pioneer has so far succeeded by tackling head-on the biggest problems of plasma TVs thus far. For one thing, the whole issue of colours and skin tones and natural-looking reproduction has been solved through what they call their ‘Advanced Super CLEAR Drive System’: basically, this means that their panels can recreate a ridiculously huge number of colours, 2.79 billion to be exact. This is a huge advantage when it comes to faithfully reproducing colours at the dark end of the spectrum, ensuring that blacks are truly black. Unlike previous plasma units, which were great only for certain limited types of programming (especially those demonstrated at the shop), these are screens that really are good for everyday TV watching.
A second advantage of Pioneer’s new product is that they have ditched the traditional glass panel filter that traditionally sits on the front of plasma units. Because the glass filter often had the annoying side effect of creating multiple reflections between the filter itself and the display unit, Pioneer developed ‘direct colour filter’ technology that not only is crisper (and lighter) than old-fashioned glass panels, but also improves contrast, making images clearer in bright locations.
One more thing that Pioneer has done right: They’ve recognized that there are more places for a flat-panel unit to go then just on a wall, and as such have come up with a pretty schmick-looking stand to hold the thing. Free speakers are a nice extra touch, too, even though the recommended retail price of the two units have just dropped by a thousand dollars a piece – the 43-inch model clocks in at $6,999, while the top-end 50-incher will set you back $8,999.
Money, May 05, AU Edition
DON’T DO IT YOURSELF
Most financial advisors are here to help. Here’s how to pick the right one
Can you remember the days when financial advice came from a trusted accountant or bank manager? Things were simpler then: cars had bench seats in the front; we went to drive-ins; we ate meat pies and not Macca’s; we played sport for fun and not money; sex was safe and rugby was dangerous; and we had a father figure for a Prime Minister.
Well, perhaps not everything has changed.
But it’s a different world today, and there’s a whole new breed of people out there who want to tell us what to do with our money. Along with accountants and bankers, Australians now have to contend with guidance from such people as financial advisors.
I understand where the cynics are coming from when they say that the burgeoning financial advice industry is a self-made one. But in point of fact, I have spoken to many accountants, and their general consensus is that they are pleased that financial advisors exist.
Accountants say advisors take the heat off and allow them to focus on what to do with customers’ profits, rather than trying to make them in the first place. So let’s agree on one thing: love them or hate them, financial advisors are here to stay, and we have to learn how to manage them and assimilate them into our financial strategies. We need to better understand who they are, what they can do for us, what they can’t do, and what we can do if we are not happy with their service.
The first question has to be, just what exactly is a financial advisor? Greg Tanzer from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) explains that ‘financial advisors are qualified, and allowed under the law to give advice on shares, managed investments, superannuation, even insurance: really [any] financial type investments’. ASIC is the federal government authority responsible for the licensing, registration and monitoring of financial advisors. Importantly, ASIC is also responsible for the complaint process and legal ramifications if you, as a customer, believe that you have been inappropriately advised.
What do financial advisors need to do to become licensed? A prospective applicant has to fill in a 58-page licence application form which not only questions his or her qualifications but also delves into their personal financial situation, risk management skills, and knowledge of compliance policies and dispute resolution mechanisms.
ASIC has a register that lists training courses and individual assessment services that have been approved by ASIC authorised assessors as meeting ASIC’s training requirements in relation to their Policy Statement No. 146, which governs this sort of thing.
Once a financial advisor is registered, he or she is listed on the ASIC website (www.asic.gov.au) and it is a simple matter of doing a search to ensure that they are correctly qualified.
A requirement of their licence is that every financial advisor must have a ‘Financial Service Guide’. This is a document which outlines the range of services that they offer, who they work for, and any associations they might have with financial institutions. You should be aware that almost all financial advisors have some sort of association with a large bank or other financial institution such as a managed fund provider. Is that a conflict? Is it a problem? According to Tanzer, ‘It is not providing that you know about it. The issue is that they can still give you advice from these institutions. Many customers actually want advice on the products available from these institutions because they do bank with them.’
Adds Tanzer, ‘They also have to tell you about commission arrangement and how they are being paid. They have to tell you up front’.
Financial advisors also have to be a part of some sort of external dispute resolution scheme. These schemes are put in place to save you time and money so that you don’t have to go to court. They are neutral, objective, non-associated schemes that go through certain procedures to ensure that disputes are managed fairly, openly, and equitably. One of the most common is the Finance Industry Complaint Service (FICS). All financial advisors have to be part of one of these schemes and you should ask them about this before you sign up with them.
Financial advisors also have their own industry group, the Financial Planning Association. This organisation sets ethical industry standards and has its own complaint resolution procedures.
If after all of this preparation you find yourself in a position where you have some major issues with your financial advisor, then your first step is to contact ASIC. ASIC has powers to take disciplinary action against financial advisors, which could include banning them or initiating criminal proceedings.
ASIC’s current acting chairman, Jeremy Cooper, succinctly explains that ‘clients seeking advice about how to invest their money to secure their financial futures, like all people, have a right to feel that the guidance and information they are receiving is genuine’.
This organisation is not a paper tiger, either. Just a couple of months ago, a NSW financial advisor was sentenced to an eight-year jail term with a non-parole period of five years after pleading guilty to fifteen counts of misappropriating client funds and three more counts of dishonest conduct. ASIC also took civil action in this matter in 2002 when they obtained an immediate injunction against the financial advisor in question, and later obtained orders from the Supreme Court of NSW to permanently restrain the person in question from providing financial products and financial advice, or dealing with client funds. In 2003, ASIC also permanently banned this particular financial advisor from acting as a representative of a securities dealer or of an investment advisor, and from providing any financial services.
This particular financial advisor had got himself in this position because he defrauded nine clients over a two-and-a-half year period of over $1.7 million. He advised each of his clients to invest their funds into certain investment products or term deposits. They all assumed their money was being placed into legitimate investments. But contrary to his clients’ directions, the money was used to meet various business and personal expenses. ASIC has made it clear that stealing clients’ money will not be tolerated. Cooper sums it up, stating: ‘The prison term imposed … is a reminder to all financial advisors that ASIC will pursue those who defraud the community and abuse their clients’ trust, and that they will get caught and punished’.
I should make it very clear that these sorts of proceedings are very rare because disputes are settled before court action is required, and of course, the vast majority of financial advisors are doing the right thing. Like any industry, it is the small handful of individuals that give a bad name to the hard-working ethical majority. You should also be aware that in many cases it is actually the client that is at fault for not fully understanding or investigating what is being offered. As in real estate, the financial planning is very much one of caveat emptor.
We are charging through the 21st century with a sort of millennium madness that is producing many changes. Like any change, some is good and some is not necessary. Regardless of your own personal opinion about financial advisors, they are here to stay. In the most part financial industry professionals see this as a good thing, but what about we that require their advice. For mine, as a prospective client, I see their role as a value added service that should help me manage and maximise my financial situation, but like most things in this life I am responsible for what I do and the decisions I make.
I do not want to be a part of a society full of whingers that is always looking for someone else to blame, or something else to fix self created problems. It is up to me to fully understand and investigate what an individual financial advisor is offering and what regulatory requirements they have met. If I research correctly and ask the right questions, I will be in a better financial position. It may sound a paradox, but if I were to be in the middle of a dispute I would prefer it was the result of something that my advisor had done rather than my inability to be proactive.
Tips for you to use before you hand over your hard-earned to a financial advisor:
* Search the ASIC website to ensure that they are licensed.
* Ask to see their Financial Service Guide.
* Ask what areas in which they are qualified to advise you.
* Question their commission and payment arrangements.
* Understand fully their associations with any financial institution.
* Be fully aware of what services they can offer.
* Ask them to explain, and sight, the external dispute resolution scheme that they are a part of, i.e. FICS. This is important in case you do have a dispute with them.
* Ask if they are a member of the Financial Planning Association.
* If in doubt contact ASIC at www.asic.gov.au or call their hotline number: 1300 300 630.
May 05, AU Edition
Butcher. Cop. And one of the most storied coaches in Rugby League. JENI PAYNE sits down with legendary Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett – and finds a seemingly quiet man who still has a maxim for every moment and a winning management style all his own
Wayne Bennett is a man of few words. He says he’s been ‘at war’ with the media since his days as a player. He admits he has come a long way from the Blackhall Bacon Factory of his youth. But his achievements and accolades as a coach, footballer and father keep him from ever being described as an ‘unsung hero’.
Recognised as one of the country’s most influential and innovative coaches, Bennett is the longest serving coach of a single club, has one of the best winning percentages in the game, and ranks second in the number of premierships won as a coach at an elite level.
While Bennett is wary of the media and is notorious for the sparsity of his comment, his colleagues, former Broncos players and high-profile commentators are effusive in their praise. He is not just respected, he’s revered.
Allan Langer, former Broncos Captain, told ABC’s Australian Story in May 1999 that Bennett is ‘like a father to all the players and if anyone’s got problems on or off the field, he’ll fix them if he can’.
Steve Waugh, former Test Cricket Captain, writes in the foreword of Bennett’s book, Don’t Die with the Music in You (ABC Books, 2002): ‘Bennett’s greatest strength is the simplicity of his message’. Waugh says he admires the man because ‘he gets the most from his players and what he says actually works’.
Journalists and fans alike respect Bennett for eschewing the fanfare and limelight, in preference for getting the job done with minimal fuss but plenty of gusto.
Bennett began his working career at a bacon plant, biding his time until he gained entrance to the police force. He started as a police cadet in March of 1966 and over the next two decades honed his talent
for recognising strengths and weaknesses in his fellow man.
In 1971, 1972, and 1973 he played Rugby League for Queensland, and in 1971 he was one of only two Queenslanders picked in the Australia side to tour New Zealand.
He began coaching in 1976 at club level, and in 1986 became Queensland Director of Coaching. In 1987 he became a full-time coach with the Canberra Raiders. In his first season with the Raiders, Bennett coached the team to their first-ever Grand Final and was named Coach of the Year.
In 1988 he joined the Brisbane Broncos as their inaugural coach and soon guided the club to five premierships; two World Club Challenge titles; and three pre-season titles: the Panasonic Cup (’89), Lotto Challenge (’91) and Tooheys Challenge (’95).
Bennett was also coach of the successful Queensland State of Origin sides in 1987 and 1988 and was appointed the inaugural Queensland Super League coach for the 1997 Tri-Series against NSW and New Zealand. He made a successful return to State of Origin in 1998, where he guided Queensland to an historic 2-1 series victory over NSW. The Broncos’ success in 1997, winning both the Telstra Cup and the Visa World Club Championship resulted in Bennett winning the title of Super League Coach of the Year.
Then in 1998 he attained the highest accolade, chosen as the Australian coach for the final two Tests of the ANZAC series against New Zealand. Down one-nil, Australia eventually came home victorious thanks to his inspired coaching.
Also in 1998, Bennett made history by becoming the first coach to steer his club, his state and his country to victory in each of their respective series. He was also named Queensland Coach of the Year, Australian Domestic Team Coach of the Year and, on a personal level, Queensland Father of the Year.
Again in 2000 he was named Coach of the Year when the Broncos won both the minor and major premierships.
Success followed in 2001, when Queensland won the State of Origin series thanks in part to Bennett’s remarkable coup of recalling veteran Allan Langer from England. The same year, the Queensland Government added Rugby League to the Queensland Academy of Sport program, with Bennett appointed Director.
His CV might read like that of a champion, but Bennett the man is a complex blend of humility and fortitude. Despite the shy, reclusive image he projects, he is actually an extraordinary communicator who leans on tried and true tenets that hit their mark with his players every time.
‘I collect quotes and clichés,’ the coach tells Investigate. ‘Things like “there’s always room for improvement, it’s the biggest room in the house”. They’re memorable, they motivate you and they’re true.’
Bennett believes the fundamental key to the Broncos record, and his history of coaching success with the club, is its family ethos – even though he doesn’t like the term. ‘It’s overused in this modern society for all kinds of things. I’d say we care about the players and we expect the best out of them. There’s a huge support network at the Broncos. We’ve ridden through a lot of crises, but the difference is the players themselves. We have high standards, and at the end of the day, if a player steps over that line, we let them know.’
As an organisation, the Broncos is strong from the top. Stability of management has been a huge help in getting through rough periods, says Bennett, who makes no secret of his fondness for the game.
‘I love the things that it teaches you. It teaches you to be disciplined. It teaches you not to give in. It teaches you to be taken off, it teaches you to handle disappointment.’
Married with three children, Wayne is first and foremost a family man, but he admits that the choice between family and football can be a tough decision.
‘That’s what happens to players too. Nothing replaces the mates you make. A lot of players go into the game thinking their careers will never end. But they have short career spans – you can’t be in it for 30 years like other professions – and it’s hard to adjust when it all comes to an end.
‘It’s a false world of media, adulation, money, people doing all kinds of things for them. Then when they leave, it takes two or three years to adjust. Family and friends are there for support, but nothing replaces the mates you make in footy.’
The Broncos boasts a form of exit strategy for players, but Bennett acknowledges, ‘it’s not foolproof. No sport has really done it well’.
As for his own exit plans, Bennett is reluctant to think about retirement. ‘As long as I’m enjoying it and getting the results, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t look forward to the day that I’m not part of the Broncos.’
His own motivation after 18 years in the job comes from what he calls ‘a fear of failure’. He confesses: ‘I just don’t want to let people down. I try and keep myself fresh and keep an even keel, not up and down with the highs and lows. You need to have balance in your
As respite from the game he loves, Bennett escapes Brisbane with his family and heads to the farm in Warwick to ‘chase cattle’ at least one day a week. ‘It’s a good change from city life’,
Above all, he says his formula for maintaining balance is to ‘not take yourself too seriously’.
Known for his innovative approach to coaching, Bennett says he is not into change for its own sake. ‘I’m not faddish, but if there’s a better way of doing things, let’s investigate it. The one thing I learned from my time as a police officer is that experts employ experts.’
Ten years ago he introduced full-time weight training to the Broncos and now clubs all over the country accept that as part of routine training. Rehabilitation and recovery are currently in the spotlight, particularly with the emphasis on remaining a drug-free sport. But perhaps Bennett is best known for getting the best out of people. ‘I only demand what they’re capable of,’ he explains.
He may be fond of persuasion rather than punishment, but Bennett doesn’t pussy-foot around: ‘Young men want challenges. We are doing them a great disservice if we don’t drive them to be their best. But you can’t go over the top.’
Bennett likens his role to a general manager of a company or an army officer, and admits to being a strong-willed coach, a trait that periodically frustrates diehard fans.
‘We love them and appreciate them, but you can’t try and impress them or change your plan to suit them – or the players. If you start listening to fans, it’s not long before you’re over there sitting with them.’
Likewise, shareholders are not his focus either. ‘I don’t give a sh*t about them. They get rewarded.
The team comes first, then the fans. But I have to make myself happy too and that comes from standing by my decisions and being confident I can make the right ones.’
The Broncos have been scandal-free for a number of seasons, compared with their southern counterparts. Bennett bristles at questions about the causes and the culture that breed the headline-making acts and points out that sexism and delinquent behaviour are not unique to League.
‘Sad to say, but it’s society’s problem, not the NRL’s. It’s a heap of rubbish to say players need counselling or a welfare officer. Alcohol is the biggest problem. Drunkeness. Fights, sexist behaviour, brawls – you never see it happen when they’re sober. It’s become such an issue in the community that the Premier is talking about bringing in curfews to address it.’
One suggestion to the problem of lewd behaviour: more women in administrative and management roles in rugby league.
Another is regular courses on treating women with respect. The theory goes that men who are not adequately socialised in a female environment do not acquire the skills for ‘sexual negotiation’.
They’re pumped up, pissed, and partying – and not au fait with the subtleties of dealing with the opposite sex. They use brute force to satisfy their needs, then they revert to the silence of the code, ‘what goes on on tour, stays on tour’.
But Bennett says: ‘That’s nonsense. These men all have mothers, sisters and friends that are women. They’ve all been educated to senior levels in a system that is full of females.’
His actions speak loudly too. On tours with the Kangaroos, journalists have reported that Bennett is frequently seen in the hotel bar calling ‘last drinks’ for team members, insisting on respectable hours and equally respectable behaviour.
‘You have a choice in life,’ he says. ‘You can sit back and criticise or you can try to make a difference.’
The title of Bennett’s book, Don’t Die With the Music in You, refers to a quote from the American intellectual Oliver Wendell Holmes, who observed that many people spend their lives getting ready to live and then time runs out for them and they die without reaching their potential. In it, Bennett imparts many of the professional and personal guidelines he lives by. The difference between talented players who consistently achieve their peak and those who fail to perform, according to Bennett is attitude. One of the greatest discoveries of our age, he says, is that a man can change his destiny by changing his attitude. He asks readers to ponder these questions to help put work, life and success into perspective:
• Am I allowing my life to be governed by daily activities, or do I choose to live in accordance with good principles? • Am I allowing my life to be governed by outside forces? • Am I so busy putting out fires that I don’t have time to start any? • Do I have important goals and dreams
I am committed to, or am I creatively avoiding commitments by filling by life with daily activities?
Reading his book, it’s impossible not to embrace his cache of clichés, as sage and as practical as any Dr Phil espouses.
‘People try to make our game complex. But however great, it remains a simple game,’ he says. He then attributes to Maxwell Maitz a pearler that could just as easily have been penned solely for Bennett: ‘Nothing is more simple than greatness. Indeed, to be simple is to be great.’
May 05, AU Edition
Helen Clark has been New Zealand’s PM since 1999, and her Labour Party has had about as firm a lock on power as is possible in a democratic country. But all that could be changing – and fast, especially with a election in the offing. In an interview with IAN WISHART that continues to make headlines on both sides of the Tasman, former NZ cabinet minister John Tamihere spills the beans on the inner workings of the Kiwi government, and what he thinks it is doing to the country. For New Zealand’s left, Tamihere is ...
THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
INVESTIGATE: John Tamihere, you’ve been cleared by the Serious Fraud Office of any wrongdoing, you’ve got a fight on your hands for your electorate seat this year, and I see Labour Party President Mike Williams suggesting a mid-to-late September election…
TAMIHERE: I reckon it is going to be earlier. Just in case a number of economic issues start to deteriorate.
INVESTIGATE: Labour has managed, in the past 20-odd years, to capture Liberal economic theory while retaining a socially liberal outlook. How did they do it?
TAMIHERE: We’re lucky in a number of regards. One is that there’s no huge economic debate anymore over socialism, or communism versus capitalism. That’s gone. Capitalism has won, and the argument now is about best practice, best structure, best systems, and it’s nowhere near as exciting for the masses.
There are two other things that must follow. Labour is now business-savvy. We never had that before because you had unionists who begat our party who believed all bosses were bad bosses. That chasm has now gone, because SME’s [small-to-medium enterprises] produced 86% of all new jobs in the past five years, nearly a quarter of a million, and that will increase. Because more people are becoming business-savvy. Not all businessmen are bad. The biggest sweatshops we’ve got are hospitals, run by the government and funded by the government. And so the caterers and the cleaners are actually government funded, and they’re jumping up and down at their own government.
Award rates are a joke because they bear no resemblance to the capacity of the business sector to achieve it, and that’s why those general wage rounds are anathema to reasonable economics. I mean, you get a number of people jumping up and down seeking a five percent general wage order – get a life!
INVESTIGATE: What sort of power do the unions still have with the Labour party?
TAMIHERE: You know, they come in all ‘ra ra ra’, and the next minute, you know, it’s welcome to the real world, when they’re exposed to a whole bunch of competing advice and information that they’ve never had before because it’s always been the union line before. Unions. I can’t stand them. I had a big pow-wow with some of them. You go into town, have a meeting with them. Won’t name any names but they were all sitting there, and I said to them, ‘All of you sitting over there were all on good jobs, and you all sold us out under Rogernomics in the eighties’. Now I actually think a lot of things happened under Rogernomics in retrospect which were extraordinarily good, but when you’re suffering you take a more vested interest. These guys were all running around in their bloody Falcons and they were on $55,000 those years, which was bloody good money. And what did they do? Nothing! Now some of them are politicians.
INVESTIGATE: Looking ahead three to six years, what do you think the unions are aiming for in the Labour Party.
TAMIHERE: Well, obviously greater influence. I think we f...ed up with our 2004 amendments to the Employment Relations Act. I think it’s very silly, a number of things that we did then, merely to give unions greater organizational capabilities. I don’t think it’ll translate to greater union membership, but having said that it’s another impost and imposition on business. It’s really ugly. Because as business downsizes and subcontracts, if it was me I wouldn’t have anyone in the union. The ‘union’ was our company, our whanau. Guys that actually make small businesses work, as you’ve correctly indicated, they’re not bad employers otherwise they screw their own business. The other thing is a lot of small businesses in NZ are familial, either direct family or references from mates.
INVESTIGATE: The union movement is angling for more of its old heyday, but in your opinion that’ll backfire if the activists achieve that?
TAMIHERE: Yes. Mark Gosche never delivered for them, so they’re bringing in Maryann Street, and she’s a very capable person. I’ll tell you this: Burton was actually meant to be the Speaker but as soon as Street came in and got a high place on the northern regional list, that was it.
You see, these people think in timeframes of ten to fifteen years, it’s only bastards like me that struggle through the current term. So when you’re positioning for high places, they’re thinking that far ahead...yeah, they purposely planned to lose. ‘That era’s gone, we’re new, and we’re coming. He’s gone, Helen’s it’.
INVESTIGATE: This goes back to the great conspiracy theory. Most people like you and I can’t get our heads around the idea that someone can sit in a darkened room and figure out where they want to be in fifteen years. Where do they get the time to do that?
TAMIHERE: They don’t have families. They’ve got nothing but the ability to plot. I’ve gotta take my kid to soccer on Saturday, they don’t. So they just go and have a parlez vous francais somewhere and a latte, whereas we don’t get to plot, we’re just trying to get our kids to synchronise their left and right feet. They don’t even think about that.
I’ve got a fifteen year old whose testosterone’s jumping and he’s scrapping around at school. Now they don’t have that, and because they don’t have that they’re just totally focused. You’ve also got a fully paid organization called the union movement, who can co-opt fully paid coordinators. These people just never sleep.
INVESTIGATE: How dangerous is it to be in the Labour Party?
TAMIHERE: If you’re a free and independent spirit, very dangerous. Like, if there was a popularity poll for me, I can assure you that there’s more ministerial klingons voting on the old PC against you, and yet I’m on the same team! They sit there, typing away, muttering, ‘come on SFO, let’s nail this bastard!’
In this outfit it’s all ‘rosy’ on the outside, not the inside. When I used to make a contribution in cabinet, on the cabinet papers, I’d go, ‘Hang on’, and she’d go, ‘you want to be difficult again, do you?’
I’d say ‘it’s not about being difficult, it’s just that a number of these amendments are pointless. You’re just scoring brownie points off the other side when you’ve already beaten them. I don’t think you need to do that. I think you can lighten up on some of these points and still achieve what this mob over here want, the Blues Brothers over here, Maharey and his mates.’ Thankfully, my advice was accepted on a number of occasions.
INVESTIGATE: What do you make of the ‘machine’ that
exists on the ninth floor at the moment?
TAMIHERE: Oh yeah, there’s definitely a ‘machine’ all right. It’s formidable. It’s got apparatus and activists in everything from the PPTA [Post Primary Teachers’ Association] all the way through. It’s actually even built a counterweight to the Roundtable – Businesses for Social Responsibility.
Its intelligence-gathering capabilities are second to none.
INVESTIGATE: How good is the media, or are they totally useless and sycophantic?
TAMIHERE: They’re utterly and totally useless. And sycophantic. You know and I know there’s no investigative journalism done in that bloody gallery. In an information age, we’ve got more ignorant people out there than there’s ever been.
INVESTIGATE: Labour’s enjoying the benefit of that, but surely there’s got to be a day of reckoning..
TAMIHERE: Not when the journalists know they’ve got to deal with this government for another three years, and the same goes for business. Right now there are people writing cheques out in the corporate sector who wouldn’t bloody cross the road to pee on us if we were on fire, for the same reason: at the end of the day it’s business. They’ve got to deal with this party.
And the other mob aren’t helping themselves much. Even if they wanted to, they’ve got no one who can articulate it.
INVESTIGATE: How much longer can the current machine dominate?
TAMIHERE: The current machine wants to become, in all ways, the natural party of government, and just have us vote different coalition partners on the fringes. Has kiwi culture changed that much? I don’t know.
INVESTIGATE: What is the most powerful network in the
TAMIHERE: The Labour Party Wimmins Division. Whether it’s bagging cops that strangle protestors they should be beating the proverbial out of, or – it’s about an anti-men agenda, that’s what I reckon. It’s about men’s values, men’s communication standards, men’s conduct.
I spoke to the boards and principals association in Wellington, and I showed them a picture of two girls with their fists clenched, standing on top of two young male students. The object of the exercise was to prove that once again the female students had romped home academically against all the boys. If the positions in the photo were reversed, all hell would break loose.
Where else in the world do Amazons rule?
I don’t mind front-bums being promoted, but just because they are women shouldn’t be the issue. They’ve won that war. It’s just like the Maori – the Maori have won, why don’t they just get on with the bloody job. I think it becomes more grasping.
INVESTIGATE: Will Labour win this election?
TAMIHERE: It’ll win it. Who it does business with to maintain it…she’s too savvy, mate. It’s too clever. You’ve got Cullen – we wouldn’t survive without Cullen – he can cut a deal on a piece of legislation, he can change a single word in a piece of legislation without those other bastards [coalition partners] knowing about it, and it melts down everything they wanted but they still think they got their clause in. The pressure, they bring pressure to bear on individuals.
INVESTIGATE: How intense does the pressure get?
TAMIHERE: Close to fisticuffs!
INVESTIGATE: Very un-PC!
TAMIHERE: I always kick the officials out when I know it’s going to get a bit tetchy, because you know they’ll blab all over the place. So I say ‘hang on mate, I want to talk political now, get them out’. And Cullen goes, ‘oh no, no, he’s ok’ or ‘she’s ok’. And I say ‘It might be for you, but not for me. I’m uncomfortable’.
What you do is you always use the wimmins’ language: ‘I’m feeling unsafe!’ And the women, as soon as they hear that, they’re instantly with me. ‘I’m feeling unsafe in here’. [chuckles]
INVESTIGATE: Where do you see yourself being, three years from now?
TAMIHERE: Well, as long as I’m doing the business and championing the right debate. The issue you’ve raised about where we’ve arrived, and whoever identifies that and encapsulates that, but more importantly is able to bring the masses with them, will set a new benchmark for New Zealand nationhood.
Because it is there. The sense of belonging is for everyone and the Maori don’t have a mortgage on that.
INVESTIGATE: You can get trapped, as you’ve made the point, looking back instead of forward, and letting bitterness over the past poison your future. They don’t grow as people or move on.
TAMIHERE: The Weisenthal Institute is the same. I’m sick and tired of hearing how many Jews got gassed, not because I’m not revolted by it – I am – or I’m not violated by it – I am – but because I already know that. How many times do I have to be told and made to feel guilty?
Same with the Maori, I hear them talking about how they were burnt out of the Orakei marae in 1951 and so on. Big deal. What are we doing about it? Well, we’ve fixed it, actually. So what are you going to tell your children? It’s part of their history. It’s not baggage and it’s not an anchor. It’s part of their folklore.
INVESTIGATE: What’s Helen like?
TAMIHERE: A very complex person, a very, very complex person. And she’s been made complex by the range of sector groups she’s been made to engage with and occasionally confront. But she’s no good with emotions. She goes to pieces. She’ll fold on the emotional side and walk away or not turn up. She knows it’s going to get emotional and it upsets her.
We’ve never had a great relationship. I said to her, ‘look, I don’t give a f..k about the unions. You’ve got enough of those. My job is to bloody talk to kiwi males who are feeling out in the cold over the whole thing and also to stand up against some of the PC bulls..t.
And that’s why I said to Chris Carter, ‘I’m standing against that bloody civil union bill mate, because you’ve already had enough! I voted for one piece of social engineering and now you’re f..king coming back for another! Those two queers never got it right. I said you can have one, Civil Unions or Prostitution, make up your mind. And so I gave in on Prostitution. And then he comes up to me
and harangues me, because he wants to be the first get married on April 1, the tosser, and he says to me ‘but you’re a minority John, you understand’.
I’ve got a right to think that sex with another male is unhealthy and violating. I’ve got a right to think that.
INVESTIGATE: Why are these policies so popular on the ninth floor?
TAMIHERE: Because Helen has been brutalized by people who have called her lesbian, no children and all the rest of it. Her key advisor Heather Simpson is a butch, and a lot of her support systems are, Maryann Street and so on, and she’s very comfortable in that world and comfortable with it. I’m not.
And so that’s why it’s got strong legs. And when you go down through that building [the Beehive] it is infiltrated with it, in key policy and decision making processes and the upper echelons of the ministries, and it skews things, it is an unhealthy weighting, because even if you give a policy directive they’ll skew the policy underneath you. You wake up and think, ‘am I wrong thinking this way?’
But that’s when they’ve got you. They’re trying to make men think and act like them, but I’m not one of them. In my view this is a circuit breaker because you can actually rally numbers. That group of women has only one worldview, and men have to organize themselves to deal with that, and start winning the debates. Men can actually reassert a position. It’s about social conduct and performance. It’s about good father role models. It is about societal mores that will achieve that, not the police.
INVESTIGATE: And some of the chickens coming home to roost would be?
TAMIHERE: The number of do-gooders who are paid extremely well in government. We’ve got 180,000 fewer unemployed, but a bigger bureaucracy than when we did! What the hell is going on here?
We’ve got a range of poor incentives. We say to people ‘you stay in a state house at 25% gross’, and we’re teaching them to be crooks. There might be four income earners in there – we’ll never know it.
And instead of trading up and moving on, we’re encouraging them to stay in there. One third of kiwi families don’t have a male in them. That’s not good. But we got a document printed that tells us all the young males need and are desperately craving for is a male role model who’ll acknowledge them, acknowledge where they’re at and be supportive of them, which is what a normal father does. And if the father’s not there we’ve got to find a male role model somewhere else. And we can’t get them in primary schools, because we’re all ‘molestors’, all ‘rapists’, or ‘potentially’ we’re going to do it. So we’ve got to shift that attitude and provide scholarships to encourage men back into the education system.
Men’s problems are traditionally dealt with by the criminal justice system. Women, on the other hand, get a bloody Cartwright Inquiry and get millions of dollars thrown at their breasts and cervixes. Men get nothing. You need a debate that we can tackle unfair and stupid policy with.
May 05, AU Edition
Would you want a job where getting vomited on or dodging a falling telephone pole was considered part of the normal 9-to-5 routine? Probably not. But luckily for the rest of us, some men and women do: they fix our homes, rescue us when we’re in trouble, and take care of society’s forgotten. They’re the Australians who really are
DOING IT TOUGH
Roofer, plumber & carpenter
Dave Edwards has been a Sydney-based roofer, plumber and carpenter for the last seven years, specializing in inner-city renovations. ‘My work involves variety of tasks – I’ve been roofing, laying floorboards, pouring concrete, doing formwork, framing, bricklaying, digging foundations, all aspects of building pretty much. A lot of manual labour is involved in the job.’
While Mother Nature does not make any special allowances for those who toil outdoors all day, your typical roof carpenter isn’t going to let discomfort stop him from earning a buck.
‘Oh yeah, you work all year round! You could be digging trenches, digging footings in 42-degree heat eight hours or more a day – and you’ve got a lot of heavy lugging around to do’, he says.
‘Because you have these tasks to do – pouring concrete, putting up the frame-work, and so on, you need to string it all together at the right time. You can’t just postpone everything because of inconvenience.’
Dave’s work over the last few years has demanded a combination of brain and brawn.
‘Say, in the inner city where I work, access to the sites can be pretty bad. You’ve got to take all the material through the front door – all the heavy materials. Throughout all of this, you have to be perfectly organized, and have your mind on the job constantly. It’s extremely labour-intensive, yet you also have to be thinking a couple of weeks ahead all the time and have everything set up in the right order. You can’t store much on site, so when you need things, they have to turn up and get installed right away.’
Combining hard labour with strategic foresight in often uncompromising weather is not everyone’s cup of tea: ‘It can be a logistical nightmare. There are a lot of situations where you might have outdoor work but if it is going to rain, you can’t just stop. The project has to continue somehow - if that means working in the rain, then you have to do it.’
Is he complaining? Of course not - he loves his job. But for Edwards, enjoying work time is balanced by the daily trials and tribulations that come with servicing the Sydney housing boom.
By Steve Edwards
Disability Support Worker
I have been knocked unconscious on several occasions, thrown down a cliff, had my thumb bitten off, been saturated in deliberate projectile vomit, punched and kicked,’ says Melissa Young.
Melissa’s not a member of the SAS, part of a new extreme fitness craze, or a contestant on a Japanese game show. For much of her working life Melissa has been a disability support worker.
While it sounds dangerous, Melissa talks about her job with humour and perspective. It is obvious she has a passion for people and for bringing quality to their lives. These incidents were all cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she says, though she admits that supporting people with a disability is challenging.
Despite the dangers and humiliations, Melissa says the job was a fabulous experience. ‘The variety in the work is incredible. Some people may have mild learning disabilities, but they can be the best friends you’ve ever had. Other people may have much higher support needs due to behavioural issues.’
It is the issue of behaviour that often places disability support workers in threatening situations.
Like anyone, people with a disability get angry and frustrated, and support workers must diffuse those emotions that may cause their clients to become violent and aggressive. Melissa says the answer lies in being able to communicate and treat people with respect.
Melissa recalls one incident where she was concerned that a person she was working with had drowned. It was a scary moment. She went over to the side of the spa at the public pool they were at and as she bent down to try and see through the bubbles the fist of a powerfully-built woman emerged from the foam and left Melissa out cold on the tiles.
Why would anyone return to work after an event like that?
‘I really enjoyed the challenges of working with people who have behavioural issues. This area does have elements which can be “dangerous”, but with the right supports it works out fine.’
Melissa just left disability support to become a training consultant for the Victorian State government, which is role that allows her to continue to manage risk and support the disability workforce.
She is thrilled that support workers are now trained to engage laterally with their work. Melissa adds that by treating people with disabilities with rescect and supporting their needs, a lot of the tougher aspects of the job can be avoided.
By Dan Donahoo
Paramedic, Westpac Air Ambulance Service
The Westpac Air Ambulance Service team is the ultimate go-anywhere rescue service, and Special Casualty Access Team member Chris Wilkinson is one of the men who make the famous chopper a lifeline to hundreds of Australians every year. Chris is trained in abseiling and caving, and can work in snow and at sea as well. The job is all about teamwork and commitment, and it allows some truly amazing feats – like the team’s specially-developed technique for plucking people from the surf in just three to five seconds.
‘I always wanted to be a paramedic’ Chris says. He started his training almost two decades ago, and now at age 42 he is one of only 64 senior paramedics in all of NSW.
‘This is very difficult training, 55 to 65 per cent fail, with intense physical and mental discipline, and the training is always ongoing and developing. You have to have the right temperament and the will to succeed’.
For Wilkinson, a typical day might involve attending to a motorcycle accident or finding lost bushwalkers, but his proudest achievement is the four bravery medals he received for his work after the infamous 1997 Thredbo avalanche in the Snowy Mountains. Eighteen people were killed; Chris rescued the sole survivor.
‘It was thirty-six hours later when we found him. I tunneled through tons of unstable rubble to find him deep in the darkness, it was minus-twelve degrees, and I stayed with him for eleven hours’, he recalls.
This is human endeavor and instinctual willingness to help at its highest level. When asked if he still gets nervous, he admits, ‘When you’re suspended on a wire three hundred feet above treacherous surf it will always get the heart pumping!’
By Ben Wyatt
Matt Boyle doesn’t build houses like other people. Half-builder and half-artist, his methods could easily be described as unconventional. While the finished product of his work is stunning, his on-site safety issues are more challenging than your run-of-the-mill house site.
A chainsaw is Matt’s tool of choice. ‘If a sharp chainsaw is going right, you can get to spots you can’t get into with any power tool,’ he says. ‘It is probably the first thing you have in your trailer.’
With chainsaws, a 60-year-old army truck, 20-year-old crane and a penchant for mud bricks, Matt works with owner-builders to create unique homes.
Known for his scavenging ability, his building style is highlighted by the use of heavy recycled materials: poles, stone and steel. It gives his houses solidness and the feeling they are connected with the earth. But he notes that in working with these materials, the biggest challenge is getting them all on-site. Many materials are tough to work with – especially telephone poles.
‘We’ve had some hairy moments. We were lifting one heavy beam up, and it started slipping out of the sling. The crane was shaking off its chocks and everyone had to run around and move fast. It was alright, but there was no other machine we could get in to do it.’ Not surprisingly, the safety issue demands constant attention.
Matt and his crew build organically. Once a wall starts to go up, they work with how the space feels.
‘Building like this, you work around yourself all the time. Having versatility is crucial – being able to change things and get stuff right,’ he says.
‘One of the toughest things is scaffolding. When we build a house, we basically build a whole house outside it before we start. I think we’ve built scaffolding one hundred times in different ways for different jobs.’
Over time, carrying mud bricks, manoeuvring 10-metre telephone poles and working with solid timbers and steel has taken its toll.
‘I’m turning 30 this year, and I’ve done a nerve in my lower back. I’ve got to be careful now. I think that’s probably more from stupidity. If you take it a bit slower and have a few guys there, it is smarter.’
For this reason, Matt always makes sure his workers are aware of the risks: ‘You’re never doing the same thing twice. You’re always “winging it”. You have to keep learning stuff all the time. It isn’t stuff you can get out of a book. On all the trailers now, we have little safety messages so you are always thinking about it. You don’t want anyone ending up paraplegic or anything. At the end of the day, it’s just a house.’
By Dan Donahoo
TOUGH QUESTIONS: May 05, AU Edition
Debating the Resurrection – is it important?
So that was Easter. You know, the time of year when we all jump in cars for a long weekend away, enjoying the rain and high winds, before coming back to a week of sunshine. You know, the time of year when the Good Friday movie on television is invariably something like Deep Throat or – as it was this year – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
In the midst of the stormy weather and the Bacchanalian dancing on the cross of Christ by hostile TV programming mavens, hundreds of thousands of people nevertheless turned out to Easter services nationwide where they would have also heard a wide range of opinions on the Resurrection of Christ.
If you’d gone to the liberal New Age Buddhist hang-out centre formerly known as St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican “church” in Auckland, you’d have heard a sermon telling you Easter has nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ was resurrected – because he probably wasn’t – it was all about the circle of life, and rebirth and other symbolic New Age concepts.
In other words, a sermon based entirely around the Easter Egg. Across town, at a genuine Christian church, you’d be more likely to hear a sermon on the real significance of the crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, a sermon based on hot cross buns.
Out of all that, the ordinary punter is expected – once a year, anyway – to try and make some sense out of Christian doctrine when it seems even the churches don’t know what they stand for or what they believe. Is the actual resurrection important? Yes it is, and here’s why.
Without the real death of Christ on the cross, and a real, bodily resurrection out of the tomb, there is no Christianity. Sure, Jesus was a wise man and a great teacher, but if he’s ultimately still in the grave then he cannot have been God and cannot have been telling the truth in that regard. He’s just another wild-eyed wannabe and whether you follow his principles of living or not is entirely up to how you feel.
But, if Christ was indeed resurrected such a feat would prove his claim to be God, to be someone far more powerful than mere mortal humans. In short, if Jesus really was resurrected then everything else he said must be true, because he is the only person in all human history to have not only claimed to be God, but given evidence to prove his claim and done so in front of witnesses.
Buddha, Muhammed, Confucius? They’re all still dead and buried. Of all the great religious leaders, only Jesus Christ actually claimed to be God the Creator and performed miracles to prove it.
Buddha said there were many paths to Nirvana, but offered no evidence of his authority to make the statement. Hinduism bases its religion on ancient legends, not demonstrable historical figures whose existence we can prove. Moreover, Hinduism is like a throwback to the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Hinduism believes in different classes of humans, that some people are scum just because of the social class they’re born into. Does that sound like a religion founded by the Creator of the Universe?
Muhammed claims God can only be attained through his teachings, but he never performed the miracles that Christ did to show his divine authority.
So we’re left with a resurrected Jesus Christ saying “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me”.
So it all hinges on the resurrection. If it happened, then his comment immediately above affects every living human on this planet, regardless of what religion they think they follow. If the resurrection really happened, then Jesus’ call to the disciples to preach that fact to all nations is not just Christianity seeking “equal time” alongside other religious beliefs; it is Christianity saying every other belief system out there is wrong, and if you choose to follow them you’ll be committing spiritual suicide.
Did the resurrection happen?
The evidence clearly suggests it did. Firstly, we are struck with the fact of an empty tomb. It is abundantly clear both from the Gospel accounts and from Jewish writings that Jesus’ body was missing. The Jews accused the Christians of stealing it. So fact one: the tomb
Then there’s the role of women. In the Gospel accounts, women were the first to witness the empty tomb, and witness the risen, resurrected Jesus. So what? Well it may not seem a big deal in our modern world where men and women both get to vote, but in Middle Eastern countries of the time, as today, women were second-class citizens whose testimony was so worthless they couldn’t even be witnesses in court.
If the Gospel accounts were fiction, the authors would definitely have made men the first witnesses, to lend credibility to the accounts. They would not in a million years have dreamed of making women the first witnesses unless, of course, that’s what really happened and they regarded the facts as more important than the spin.
Fact two: with women being first to witness the risen Christ, this indicates the story is more likely to be factual because it is counter-cultural – it runs against what people of the day would have expected, yet tells the story straight despite the risk of alienating potential converts.
Which then brings us to the other witnesses. A resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to the women and the 11 surviving disciples and around 500 others during the six weeks after his death on the cross. Search the annals of Sigmund Freud’s cases, or search every library of every psychology department at every university in the world, and you will never find one case of a hallucination appearing to hundreds of people at different times, or 11 people in a room all reporting that a hallucination sat down and ate fish with them, or that they could touch the hallucination. So the only other possible option here is that all the witnesses were simply liars who constructed a fictional story to help sell their message.
Fact three, then: the resurrection appearances to hundreds of people were not hallucinations, and must either be true or the deliberate false creation of the early Christians.
So could the resurrection appearances have been deliberate lies to sell the Christian message? Let’s examine that for a moment. Such deceit stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ stood for, and everything preached in the Gospels. In other words, if you truly believed Jesus was the way and the truth, how was inventing the mother of all fairy stories going to reflect that “truth”?
Secondly, after the crucifixion, the record shows the disciples were crushed men. They’d been expecting to see the man they followed as God be triumphant at the cross, perhaps smiting all the Roman soldiers and proving to all that he was God come to deliver justice and vengeance against those who had dared to harm him. Instead, whipped and scourged to within an inch of his life, they’d watched from the sidelines as the Romans taunted Jesus on the cross before he drifted away suddenly crying out that even God had forsaken him. Maybe, thought the disciples, he really was only a man after all. So their own visions and dreams of the Messiah died on the cross with Christ, and when the women first talked about a risen Jesus they thought the women were insane. It just wasn’t computing in their heads.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this, that Jesus only fainted on the cross and woke up in the tomb, still alive. A Roman crucifixion was not a smack on the hand with a wooden spoon. It was a bloody and brutal affair where death was guaranteed. On the remote offchance that Jesus was only a human who survived the cross, are we to believe that – after rolling away the two-tonne boulder – a half-dead Jesus, blood-encrusted, gaping nail wounds in hands and feet and a spear gash in his heart, crawled into the disciples’ meeting room triumphantly muttering, “see, I’ve beaten death, I’m Lord and master of the Universe”? Would such a spectacle have inspired the disciples, or would they assume, like you and I, that he must simply have survived and not died at all? Hardly a triumph over death.
But the Gospel accounts speak of a radiant resurrected Jesus. An inspiring figure. Could the disciples have invented the resurrection accounts? Obviously they could have, but it is extremely unlikely. First and foremost, virtually all the disciples were later executed by Rome for continuing to claim that Christ really was God and really had been resurrected. Roman documents in British and European museums show the Roman emperors gave instructions that Christians were to be shown mercy if they publicly renounced their faith, and executed if they did not.
It is highly significant that the disciples were fed to lions; dipped in tar and set alight as garden lanterns; and put to death by crucifixion because they refused to renounce their claims. It is one thing to die for something you believe to be true, but we’re not arguing here over whether the disciples “believed” it – critics say the disciples knowingly made the story up.
Question. Would you volunteer to be torn apart by starving lions to defend a story you’d made up, when you could go free just by admitting to the con? Why would the disciples die such horrible deaths for something they knew was fake? It doesn’t make sense. The only rational explanation for it is that the disciples genuinely believed they’d seen the resurrected Christ (which, for reasons covered above, must have been the genuine Jesus), and that fact gave them enough faith to endure a few moments of pain from lions, rather than give up an eternity in heaven.
And that, folks, is the ultimate power of the resurrection. It is Christianity saying to the world, in the words of a recent song: No matter what they tell you / No matter what they do / No matter what they teach you / What you believe is true.
A liberal, symbolic, Easter Egg, counterfeit construction of the resurrection may be non-threatening to followers of other religions, but it will never set them free like the Truth. If I was on a road to Hell, I’d want to be told. Wouldn’t you?
LEFT HOOK: May 05, AU Edition
How does the right win? By aping the worst habits of the left
One of the problems of war is that you inevitably come to resemble your enemy. Nowhere is this more true than in the battle of the American right, and its Australian derivatives, against the ‘politically correct’ left of the 1980s and 1990s. The PC left, never a group with much in the way of numbers or influence, have long since been routed, but they have been successful in having most of their main ideas adopted by their erstwhile foes.
First, there’s the famous obsession with ‘correct’ language. This was the subject of both justified criticism and innocent amusement when leftists tried to reclassify fat people as ‘gravitationally challenged’, and so on. But now it’s the right who are most keen on this kind of thing.
As an example, I can’t count the number of articles and blog entries I’ve read insisting that unauthorised asylum-seekers must always be called ‘illegals’. The writers, many of whom bewail declining educational standards in their spare time, don’t seem to be worried by the fact that this is an adjective masquerading as a noun. And they appear to be unaware that the same term was used in apartheid South Africa to describe people who broke the various migration and residence laws there.
The victim mentality was another unappealing feature of the postmodern left. No group, it seemed, was immune to oppression of some kind, except perhaps for dead white males. But nothing in the campaigns mounted by the left can be matched by the whininess of right-wingers (led by former whining lefty David Horowitz) complaining that they are under-represented in academic (and media) jobs. By definition, those excluded from academia must be highly educated, and in most cases therefore on above average incomes. Most likely, they have no desire to earn much lower salaries as academics. But, in the classic logic of victimology, explanations of this kind are illegitimate. If a group is under-represented in any field, discrimination is the only possible explanation.
At the same time all the old complaints about ‘hostile climates’ that were once made by lefties are now being resurrected by the right. The Florida legislature is currently debating legislation to stop biology professors hurting the feelings of creationist students by telling them their beliefs are false. And any academic who doesn’t support Ariel Sharon all the way down the line had better keep his or her mouth shut if they don’t want groups like Campus Watch on their back.
Finally, and most revealingly, there’s the postmodern disdain for objective truth. While there was a lot of evasive talk on this point, there’s no doubt that the postmodernist left was eager to cast doubt on the idea of objective truth and to argue that truth, particularly scientific truth, was a socially constructed concept.
Most of this was harmless nonsense, spouted by underemployed literary critics. But to many on the right, it seemed to spell the end of Western civilisation.
Now, however, the right has learned the lessons of postmodernism better than its proponents, who failed to make the obvious point that, if all truths are equal, the truths of those with money and power are the ones that will prevail.
There was a time when rational leftists were embarrassed by their political allies. Now, it is the minority of those on the right who still adhere to old-fashioned notions like scientific truth who have to blush constantly for the absurdities uttered on their side of the debate.
RIGHT HOOK: May 05
The purposeless-driven left
It’s been a tough year for the secular crowd. There was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the moral values election in the U.S., the Christian hostage subduing her kidnapper by reading from The Purpose-Driven Life, and the Christian effort to save Terri Schiavo.
And now, for all the hullabaloo in the media, you’d think the Pope had died.
In defense of one of the Catholic Church’s most ‘controversial’ positions, I wanted to return to a story from a few weeks ago that passed from the headlines far too quickly. The ‘controversial’ position is the ban on girl priests.
I’ll leave it to the Catholics to explain the theological details, but we have a beautiful pair of bookmarks to the exact same incident illustrating women’s special skills and deficits. The escape and capture of Brian Nichols shows women playing roles they should not (escorting dangerous criminals) and women playing roles they do best (making men better people).
Nichols’ murderous rampage began when he took the gun from a 5-foot-tall grandmother who was his sole guard at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia. It ended when an otherwise unremarkable 26-year-old woman appealed to the Christian conscience of this same violent killer holding her hostage.
At 2 a.m. one Saturday night, Ashley Smith went out for cigarettes while unpacking her new apartment. Returning from the store, Smith was grabbed by a man at her front door, who put a gun in her side and told her not to scream.
In Smith’s apartment, Nichols bound Smith’s feet and hands and put her in the bathtub. Later, at Smith’s request, Nichols allowed her to hop into the bedroom, where she began talking to him.
In short order, Smith was reading aloud to Nichols from the Christian book The Purpose-Driven Life – in direct violation of his constitutional right to never hear any reference to God, in public or private, for any reason, ever, ever, ever!
After reading the first paragraph of Chapter 33 aloud, about serving God by serving others, Nichols asked her to read it again.
Smith read to Nichols some more, both from the Purpose book and from another popular book that’s been dropped from all news accounts of this incident: the New Testament. (In the Hollywood version, Smith will be reading from the Koran.)
Nichols told Smith she was ‘an angel sent from God’, calling her ‘his sister’ and himself her ‘brother in Christ’. Nichols said he had come to Smith’s home for a reason, in Smith’s words, that ‘he was lost and God led him right to me’.
This lasted long into the night. They watched Nichols’ shooting people on TV. Nichols said he couldn’t believe he was that man. In the morning, Smith made Nichols eggs and pancakes. Then she left the apartment to call the police. When the cops arrived, Nichols surrendered, utterly transformed.
Heaven help the average liberal if this ever happens to him! What would an urban secularist do? Come, let me read to you from Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men.
It’s also another example of how universities are failing students. Today’s university women would be dead: They know nothing about Jesus Christ and can’t cook a good meal.
Smith saved the soul of a man on a killing spree by talking to him about Christianity. But liberals think this won’t work with the Muslims? We ought to fly this Ashley Smith to Saudi Arabia. We could just make her a box lunch every day and send her on her way.
THE WATCHER: May 05, AU Edition
ALAN RM JONES
Of screaming plastic turkeys and fish wrap
Afew weeks back, it was reported that the BBC had tried to book an interview with Bob Marley. I don’t mean Robert Marley, Dean of Engineering at Montana State University. No, the dear old Beeb wanted to chat with the very late ganja-worshiping Rastafarian musician, Bob Marley.
The British broadcaster admitted to being ‘red-faced’ over the attempted séance – a Freudian slip no doubt. And there are apparently no plans afoot at Broadcasting House – home to the BBC – to set up a dead rockers occult interview network, featuring such legends as Hendrix, Joplin and Elvis (oh, wait, he’s still alive).
You couldn’t be faulted for wondering how a network with billions of pounds at its disposal in the form of compulsory licence fees could make such a blunder. But alas, worse mistakes have been made by one of the MSM’s most influential global media establishments.
(‘MSM’, by the by, is not a trendy new 24-hour music video channel, nor is it an unwanted ingredient found in your take-away chow mein that jacks up your blood pressure – though it might do that anyway. MSM stands for mainstream media. Television, radio and newspapers: collectively they are the MSM. News and views on the Internet, though also an MSM medium – as in the singular of media and not as in spirit conduit – is also the domain of what is not mainstream: web diaries and blogs.)
It’s a definition based on scale and means, though not necessarily one based on content or viewpoint. It alludes to the Goliath-like resources network TV and major publishing mastheads bring to newsgathering. That world, with its foreign bureaus, editors, sub-editors and huge circulation numbers, stands in stark contrast to the legions of solitary, keyboard bashing, sleep-impaired Davids inhabiting the so-called blogosphere.
But, despite their comparatively meager resources and typical amateur status, bloggers have made their mark on the MSM. The early retirement in the US of CBS anchor Dan Rather last October, and more recently the resignation of CNN president Eason Jordan, were both attributed to the role played by bloggers.
Those resignations have prompted some mainstreamers to hit back. One former CBS executive complained on Fox News that ‘these bloggers have no checks and balances…. You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pyjamas writing.’
Fair enough. But so far it’s bloggers in pyjamas, 2; television executives in Armani, nil.
To a good many of the pyjama brigade – in both America and Australia – ‘mainstream’ is a glaring misnomer. In the view of these midnight warriors, the mistakes of the MSM demonstrate all too clearly that the traditional media is anything but mainstream and that its values and motivations are at odds with the beats they cover.
As the Sydney Morning Herald’s David Marr admitted, ‘The natural culture of journalism is kind of vaguely soft-left inquiry skeptical of authority [sic]. I mean, that’s just the world out of which journalists come. If they don’t come out of that world, they really can’t be reporters. I mean, if you’re not skeptical of authority, find another job. You know, just find another job. And that is the kind of soft-leftie kind of culture.’
The irony, apparently lost on Marr, is that the inquiries of bloggers, themselves skeptical of MSM authority, have forced some ‘soft-leftie’ journalists to rethink their own career choices.
Bloggers and their contributors provide a refreshingly democratic, and highly efficient, alternative. They can get to the bottom of an issue at lightning speed. Bloggers exposed CBS’s journalistic malpractice in days, not weeks or months.
Tim Blair agrees that blogs are providing a watchful eye on the media. Blair is uniquely situated to judge. Since 2001, he’s been writing one of Australia’s most-read blogs (http://timblair.net), which also has a big world-wide following. When not in his pyjamas, he’s a standard-bearer for the MSM, as the Bulletin’s deputy editor. ‘The impact [of blogs] on the traditional media is big and getting bigger’, says Blair.
I asked Blair if he thought there was any conflict between his two roles? ‘All the time’, he quips. ‘Seriously, though, I find having a hand in the blog world helps me in my role as editor. It’s another check. It help keep me grounded.’
Was Blair surprised by some of the attacks leveled at bloggers?
‘I’m always amazed by the sheer preciousness of those working in the news media. They’re happy to make fun of everyone else, but have wafer-thin skin – you couldn’t measure it with an electron microscope – when the finger is pointed back at them’, says Blair.
But Blair believes that most Australian journalists see value in blogs, though some, notably Peter McEvoy, executive producer of ABC’s Media Watch, ‘are dismissive or hostile.’
‘His loss’, adds Blair. ‘That show could do with some blog-like scope and attention to detail.’
Until recently, unless you had a lot of information at your fingertips – like a news clipping service and a vast reference archive as well as a staff to search it for you – you could never compete with traditional news outlets. They really had an effective monopoly on information. News consumers were at their mercy.
Reporters could much more easily slither out of their own words from one news cycle to the next. As Blair says, ‘there was a time, basically before Google, when yesterday’s mistakes were today’s fish wrapper’. No longer.
Blair points to the Iyad Allawi ‘executioner’ story as a good example – an unfounded rumour that Iraq’s interim president had personally executed prisoners. Blair says the story had been quickly and thoroughly discredited thanks to bloggers in Iraq and elsewhere.
‘By the time [the Herald’s] Paul McGeough latched onto the Baghdad urban myth, bloggers were ready to pounce’, says Blair.
The ‘Dean scream’ is another excellent case. There was something about former US democratic presidential challenger Howard Dean that said, Maybe having this guy’s finger on the nuclear button isn’t the best idea. But when Dean made his unsettling primal scream, the Washington correspondent for the Age and the Herald, Marian Wilkinson, didn’t file.
It was the scream heard round the world, ending Dean’s presidential hopes, and Wilkinson didn’t think it rated a mention in dispatches. Bloggers everywhere heard it and knew what it meant. Somebody else – who didn’t yelp like a wounded animal – was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee.
‘Good old-fashioned reporting sense said Dean’s scream was newsworthy. Look, it’s not necessarily a left-right thing. Look at the way the media stuffed it up on [Mark] Latham. It wasn’t only left-leaning journalists that hadn’t cottoned on that Latham was going to crater’, says Blair.
But Blair admits despite blogdom’s best efforts some stories, no matter how wrong, are repeated over and over again as if true. Blair points to the mythical plastic Thanksgiving Day turkey Bush is
alleged to have served to the troops in Iraq. ‘Even though that story has been shown to be bogus, some reporters and columnists won’t – or can’t – let go of it’, Blair laments.
On further reflection, Blair admits that he’d be disappointed if the plastic turkey faded away altogether. ‘It’s been around so long, I think many bloggers, myself included, have become attached to it. That turkey has become part of the lore of the early days of the revolution now sweeping the media’, Blair says somewhat wistfully.
May 05, AU Edition
HOWHERE TO HIDE
Biometric passports. A worldwide database tracking one billion people. Cameras on every street, tracking every move. Opinions that must be registered to be published – if they are legal at all. Is this a vision of some fictional Orwellian hell, or the world just around the corner? JAMES ROBERTSON and JAMES MORROW look at the growing tension between webloggers, privacy activists, and ordinary citizens and the world’s governments in the post-9/11 era
The story read like it could have come from China, or Iran, or any number of totalitarian states: an individual’s testimony to a government inquiry breaks open a massive scandal involving the ruling party, allegations of corruption, and as much as $100 million dollars in false payments – all tied in to an effort to undermine a separatist group seeking their own state. Thanks to an official order, though, the testimony is secret, even though (or perhaps because) it has the power to bring down the national government. Despite everyone in the highest circles of the capital city knowing the story, the press can only barely allude to it, under pain of prosecution.
But that doesn’t mean the information doesn’t make it out to the wider world. In a neighbouring country, a few individuals with their own weblogs, or blogs, throw the damning information out onto the Internet, allowing anyone with a computer and a web browser to find out the whole story. Anyone, that is, except those in the place where it is happening: in the country where the scandal is taking place, individuals are not allowed to post any of the information on their own sites, or even link to a site in another country that details the charges. ‘Anyone who takes that information and diffuses it is liable to be charged with contempt of court’, warned a government official. ‘Anybody who reproduces it is at risk.’
Amazingly, the scandal – and the subsequent threat to crack down on anyone disseminating crucial information about it – took place in Canada, a country that likes to think of itself as one of the most liberal, tolerant, and enlightened nations on the planet. An interesting story on its own, the tale highlights the growing tension between individual citizens and their governments as technology allows each side to keep ever-closer tabs on one another. Even in free and democratic states like Australia, the United States, and Great Britain, technology is radically changing the way government relates to people and vice versa. What political philosophers call the ‘night watchman state’ – in which the government’s roles, as Harvard’s Robert Nozick once defined it, are ‘limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts, and so on’ – is a thing of the past.
Instead, politicians on both the left and right are using technology, the threat of terrorism, and a natural desire to increase their own power to slowly but surely turn liberal democracies into ‘panopticon’, or ‘all-seeing’, states with the sort of surveillance powers the old Soviet Union and her satellites could have only dreamed of.
ARE YOUR PAPERS IN ORDER?
Already, anyone wishing to travel to the United States will soon require a passport embedded with biometric and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags which are not just expensive and intrusive, but also open up a huge Pandora’s box of privacy issues. For one thing, the RFID tags will contain a wealth of unencrypted data and will be readable by anyone within range with the proper scanning equipment, creating a huge new opportunity in the growing identity theft market.
Business and tourism groups in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe are all asking Washington to back off from the new requirement, but so far the response from the U.S. State Department has been, ‘our country, our rules’. Which might be fair enough were there not plans to, by 2015, make the new biometrically-encoded, radio-tagged passports standard around the world and create a global database of one billion travelers, their movements, and their personal details.
Ironically, while these measures are all being enlisted in the fight against the very real threat of international terrorism, the data in the new passports will actually create a boon for identity thieves and their customers, including terrorists, drug smugglers and the like. Furthermore, at a practical level, much of the technology that the US is leading the international push for is actually quite unreliable.
Some 39 international human rights groups from Australia, Asia, Europe, and North America have all signed a letter protesting the technology, noting that ‘even the most reliable uses of this technology - one-to-one verification using recent photographs - have been shown in US government tests to be highly unreliable, returning a false non-match [where technology doesn’t recognise people with a valid photo] rate of five per cent and a false match rate of one per cent’.
More worryingly, they point out that while free countries may use this technology to keep an eye out for bad guys, more repressive regimes could also use it for their own evil purposes, such as cracking down on dissidents. ‘We hope that the choices of biometrics have been driven primarily by logistical and commercial concerns and were not intended to facilitate the conversion of travel systems into a global infrastructure of surveillance’, the letter concludes. ‘But we are deeply concerned that this may become their unintended consequence.’
And indeed an ‘infrastructure of surveillance’ is what is cropping up, slowly but surely, even in free countries. Be it the near-fanatical push by the United Kingdom’s Home Office for national identity cards that may wind up including DNA fingerprints of every citizen or hidden cameras, often with face-recognition technologies linked to police stations everywhere from American suburbs to (as is now being proposed) Sydney’s King’s Cross, government agencies are using everything from the threat of terrorism to the fight against day-to-day street crime to use technology to be everywhere and see everything.
Which is one reason why the current tensions – not just in Canada – between webloggers and their governments represent the thin edge of what could be a very large wedge. Exposing the old canard that ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about’, cases in Canada and elsewhere are showing that when it comes to technology, governments are increasingly worried about the power of technology to keep an eye on them, and would rather keep it in their own hands.
CANADA’S WAR ON WEBLOGS
In a bygone era of print media supremacy Canada’s ban would have gone unchallenged; indeed, the Canadian daily the Vancouver Sun made its reluctance to defy government orders clear in an editorial, writing, ‘It’s a shame [we] can’t publish anything that’s going on in the…inquiry. When the publication ban is taken off we can all talk freely about what’s going on in our country. Until then our collective lips are sealed’.
But weblogs are changing all that. Already a thorn in the side of totalitarian states like Iran, China, and Burma, where dissidents use the internet as a way of challenging the government’s media monopoly, bloggers in the democratic world are about to learn that an unfortunate consequence of their growing influence is greater attention from governments, as regulators worldwide begin to consider the possibility of reigning in a medium that had previously been a forum for unbridled free expression.
The problem for bloggers is the fine line they tread between fulfilling the role of legitimate journalists and, as their detractors term them, pyjama-clad partisans.
This group of supposed dilettantes, many of whom lack any traditional journalistic qualifications, are beginning to challenge the establishment media for its reach of influence. Readers have embraced the openly partisan format of blogs, the most popular of which can boast daily readerships comparable to the national newspapers and lay claim to having broken some of the biggest stories of the past year.
There are no barriers to internet publication, however, and anyone with a computer and the inclination to do so can establish their own blog free of charge within minutes. Blogs are also free from any external editing which allows their author’s to diarise, write political commentary and deliver a mix of observations, criticisms or updates on a limitless array of subjects without paying attention to concerns about political correctness, bias or even readability.
Governments are pointing to this lack of professionalism across the internet as justification for not giving bloggers and online publishers the same freedoms as members of the traditional press. While print journalists and contributors to the mainstream media are protected by legal precedent that enshrines their free political communication, the law has been slow to respond to the explosion of online political content, giving legislators a chance to fill the void and place clear limits on their freedom of expression.
Leading the Australian push is Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, Special Minister of State and newly appointed head of the Australian Government Information Management Office, who says he is giving ‘very active consideration’ to introducing reforms that would make bloggers and online publishers subject to the provisions of the Australian Electoral Act.
The legislation, expected to be introduced after the coalition takes control of the Senate on July 1st, would place bloggers in the same category as political advertisers, requiring them to include the name and address of the person authorising their website content and making publishers of unauthorised political material subject to fines as large as $5,000.
Of particular concern to most bloggers is the broad definition of what constitutes political or ‘electoral’ material as it is defined by Australian Electoral Law. Section 4(1) of the Electoral Act says that electoral material may include ‘any […] reference to, or comment on: the election; the Government; the Opposition; a political party or candidate; or any issue submitted to, or otherwise before, the electors in connection with the election’.
The issues that fall under the definition and be subject regulation include the performance of the government, taxation levels – even gay marriage.
An Australian Electoral Commission official, who declined to be named, told Investigate that the application of such a wide ranging definition to online content would be ‘difficult, broad…and potentially dangerous’.
Also problematic is the interpretation of what constitutes an advertisement under Australian electoral law. Defined as being any form of publication or notice that contains ‘electoral matter’ the act could potentially to any expression of political opinion, regardless of whether the author has any links to a political party.
The traditional media are exempt from the regulations and the law no longer places restrictions on those who write letters to the editor or callers to talkback radio; creating a legal situation where opinion expressed within the pages of a newspaper is considered legitimate free expression but self-published material on the internet is subject to regulation.
Senator Andrew Bartlett, deputy leader of the Australian Democrats, has a rare vantage point on the issue, as both a sitting member of the Senate that is expected to approve the legislation when it is introduced and as a blogger himself.
Bartlett, who uses his blog to communicate with his electorate directly, suggests that bloggers should be afforded the same freedoms and protections as journalists, noting that he often looks to blogs for analysis in preference to the traditional media, ‘The problem with the political coverage in the mainstream media is that it lacks substantial coverage of policy…they’ve tried to turn parliament into a soap opera.’
Bartlett warned that any legislation is likely to have ‘unforseen consequences,’ impacting on ordinary, private citizens while politicians and public figures will have few qualms about making their identities known.
These restrictions will have a significant impact on the way in which people use the internet as a publishing medium; the government will effectively make anonymous political or social commentary illegal.
The announcement has sparked outrage amongst bloggers, many of whom publish their thoughts under pseudonyms and almost all of whom would feel uncomfortable about making their personal details freely available over the internet.
For Ruth Brown, a 19-year-old university student who came to prominence last year by blogging under the name John Howard, a typical entry will include a satirical recount of the day in the life of the Prime Minister: ‘Just got back from APEC. This year it was in this place called Chilly which is in this country called South America, except it’s nothing like Real America, ‘cause it’s full of poor foreign people. Like Centrelink.’
Brown fears that any regulation will stifle political satire, which she describes as being an ‘essential part of any democracy’. Claiming she will refuse to abide by any regulations that force her to reveal personal details, Brown says, ‘I just won’t do it, it’d take the fun out of the entire concept. All this law will do is make more people host their websites overseas’.
But overseas options for bloggers are fast running out, with similar legislation being mooted the world over in an emerging alliance between legislators and the media establishment – all of whom seek to limit the reach of blogging, which is becoming a serious rival for the mainstream media.
In the United States bloggers are facing a challenge from the Federal Election Commission, which is considering a similar set of regulations to those being proposed in Australia. The proposal, supported by traditional media outlets like National Public Radio and the American Prospect, is an extension of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and is billed as a response to ‘the increased use of the internet by federal candidates, political committees, and others to communicate with the general public to influence federal elections’.
Early indications show that lawmakers could treat political speech like campaign contributions by measuring and limiting, in dollar terms, the amount bloggers contribute to campaigns by writing about them: ‘We’re talking about any decision by an individual to link [to a candidate], set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the Internet,’ said Republican FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith.
A 44-page draft released by the FEC early last month indicated that all websites that display political content would be immediately regulated by default upon approval of the legislation. The proposal sparked uproar from civil libertarians who have forced the FEC to reconsider their position, but bloggers are still nervously awaiting the Commission’s final decision on online content regulation in July. The Australian government is said to be keeping a close eye on proceedings.
The problem for citizens in a democracy, wrote the American essayist A.J. Liebling is that, ‘freedom of the press is only guaranteed by those who own one’. Blogging, at least for now, has changed that; acting as a countervailing force against the media’s ability to set the political agenda and placing the power in the hands of citizens again.
Most disconcerting of all, then, is not the immediate impact of the global move to regulate the internet but the fact that governments want to move against a forum that encourages free expression at all. Considering that much of the resistance to the growing influence of the government on individual lives is coming from bloggers, the fact that the charge is being led by the world’s leading democracies is particularly worrisome.
May 05, AU Edition
Unhappy with your looks? Forget a nosejob, go get a whole new face. It sounds far-fetched, but face transplants are soon set to leave the realm of fantasy and become reality. Along with human cloning and stem cell research, it’s one of the most ethically tricky medical procedures to come down the pike in decades but, hey, you can’t stop progress. How are Australia’s doctors responding to the ethical challenges? Will face transplants be the new botox? Are embryos the only place to get stem cells? JAMES MORROW sorts through the medical facts and Hollywood hype and looks to see if medical technology is
GOING TOO FAR?
When cricketer David Hookes died last year after being bashed to death outside a Melbourne hotel, it was a tragedy – but one with some degree of a silver lining.
While Hookesy, at 48, died too young, his senseless death was ultimately not for nothing: the former batsman and radio commentator had signed up as an organ donor, and as a result, as many as ten other Australians were given the gift of life. And it didn’t stop there.
According to Australians Donate chairperson Marcia Coleman, the publicity surrounding Hookes’ death and the subsequent formation of the David Hookes Foundation to promote organ donation caused a 21 per cent spike in the number of registered organ donors. In a country where nearly 1,700 people at any given time are on years-long waiting lists for vital organs, Hookes’ death took on a new meaning.
But even if most people feel good about organ donation as it currently stands, new frontiers of medicine are being explored in America and Europe that are pushing the limits of both technology and ethics. Right at the top of the list would have to be the controversial exploration of face transplantation – an idea first introduced to the general public via the 1997 John Woo shoot-‘em-up Face/Off.
While doctors and scientists around the world have been pursuing this holy grail of plastic surgery for years, at the moment the Americans are leading in the race to be the first to perform a full facial transplant. Doctors at both the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Louisville say they are working hard to figure out the nuts and bolts of the procedure and are seeking the right candidates for the procedure. In Cleveland, doctors have been experimenting with face-to-face transplants on rats, while in Louisville, researchers have been perfecting their techniques on dead humans.
‘When plastic surgeons talk about the face and doing a face transplant, what they are talking about is using a freshly-harvested flap of skin and underlying fat from a donor who recently died – usually in an accident, but possibly from a pathological condition, and attaching it to someone else’, explains Dr. Alf Lewis, Vice President of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, when asked to explain the mechanics of the procedure.
‘The procedure itself would involve taking this skin and underlying fat and possibly a little bit of muscle, and then reattaching it under microvascular conditions [similar to the sort of microsurgery that is used to re-attach, say, fingers severed in an accident] through the microscope to the major blood vessels of the recipient joined to the donor.
‘This is all technically possible in the present state of play’, adds Lewis, who notes that ‘there is no doubt that it could all be done any sophisticated medical community, of which Australia is an example, and the microsurgery and plastic surgery involved is already being practiced here every day of the week.’
But who would the recipient of the face look like? Themselves, the donor, or some combination of the two? And, perhaps more importantly, could they handle looking in the mirror every day and seeing…someone else?
While to the casual observer, a rat is a rat is a rat, the Louisville team in the United States which has been practising on rodents believes that a facial recipient would wind up looking like some sort of combination of their old self and their new face. Dr. Lewis agrees, and notes that muscle tone, which is a key component in how any face looks, ‘would be dependent on the muscle being attached to the fat.’
‘The facial muscles are quite unique in that they originate from bone but insert not back into bone, like in limbs, but into skin in the face. That means that if you put this new donor skin and fat over the muscles which would be exposed after you remove the scar or growth or whatever, it will attach by scar-tissue adhesion and produce some element of movement,’ says Lewis.
‘It wouldn’t be as good or strong or subtle as normal, but there would be some return of movement.’
As to how the recipient of a new face, no matter what they looked like before, might cope with their new look, earlier procedures involving transplanting other parts of the body suggest it’s not as (relatively) simple as replacing a heart or liver. In fact, at least one person whom a procedure was supposed to help was eventually been forced to say, ‘thanks but no thanks, this has all gone too far’. The world’s first hand transplant, performed on New Zealander Clint Hallam in Lyons, France, in 1998, was famously a disaster. Hallam had a dodgy criminal background (he lost his hand in a circular saw accident in a Christchurch prison while serving a two-year stretch for fraud) and went on to profit from the surgery by making paid appearances to show off his new hand, often one step ahead of the law. What’s worse, he also had terrible trouble coping with the regime of anti-rejection drugs he was required to take.
Ultimately, Hallam successfully campaigned to have the new hand removed, saying that he felt ‘mentally detached’ from the limb.
If it all sounds sort of ghoulish, well, that’s because it sort of is. Especially because faces are, by definition, incredibly personal things, it is only natural for people to worry about the implications of moving them from person to person – even if the recipient is badly scarred or otherwise deformed.
‘The face is such a powerful identifier of a person that once you start talking about transplanting a face, you are talking about transplanting an identity’, says Dr. Greg Pike, who serves as acting director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide.
‘In purely surgical terms, all you’re talking about is a situation where you have a damaged faced here, a new spare face there, and simply swapping them. This is a purely material way of looking at the situation without considering the consequences that might go with the element of the new identity that the individual is receving, which is tied up in the meaning of the life that was. These things can’t be ignored.’
This where what Pike calls ‘the “yuk” factor’ comes in. To go around with some form of the identity of someone else, and to have to think about what that person might have done or been, is potentially very disturbing. Doctors and ethicists agree that if a face transplant is ever performed, the recipient will need to receive extensive in-depth psychological counseling to cope with the mental side of things just as he or she will need anti-rejection drugs to deal with the physical consequences.
‘Whilst sometimes the yuk factor can be problematic if taken alone, it can also act as a sort of primal warning system’ that can set off ethical alarm bells and tell doctors and researchers to tread carefully about a new procedure, he says.
‘The average Joe on the street has a pretty good view of right and wrong, even if they haven’t necessarily thought it out to the point where they know why. Ultimately, an ethicist isn’t that different; all an ethicist does is unpack those views.’
Dr. Lewis agrees, saying that there really are profound ethical and psychological concerns with a procedure like this, for both donor and recipient – factors which all but guarantee such a procedure would only be used in the most extreme cases, and certainly never for run-of-the-mill vanity cosmetic surgery. For one thing, the side effects of anti-rejection drugs used in such a procedure would potentially be very serious; for another, unlike a hand transplant, there’s no undoing a new face.
‘I suppose you could argue the recipient would become accustomed to not looking like their original self, and they would have to have a lot of psychological counseling and education to cope with the fact that they would never look like themselves’, says Lewis.
‘We know from our cosmetic surgery experiences on the face and nose and other parts of the body that patients often have deep psychological concerns about their appearance. And I think that the psychology of this is a profound topic that needs to be discussed very carefully.’
More challenging, adds Lewis, is the problem of finding anyone who would even be willing to donate such a personal part of themselves, noting that ‘it’s a big ask to get someone to sign their face away on their drivers’ license, and a big ask to ask the relatives of an 18-year-old girl who just died in an accident about something like that.’
Concludes Lewis, ‘The face, it really is you. It’s how you’re identified. They don’t put a photo of your backside on your driver’s license, they put your face. That is you to you and the rest of humanity.’
But if face transplants are still the stuff of rats and research labs, research into other controversial therapies such as cloning and stem cells derivatives have both the potential to change many more lives, while at the same time raising even hairier ethical concerns. Researchers in several countries are currently exploring the idea of what is technically known as somatic cell nuclear transfer technology, which involves taking the nucleus from one cell and implanting it in an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. Currently banned in Australia, this is the technique that was behind Dolly the Sheep – the world’s first cloned mammal.
What is still legal in Australia, however, is stem cell research – a technically complicated and often ethically messy arena where public perception is manipulated not so much by the ‘yuk’ factor as the celebrity factor. If stars like John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, however unwittingly, introduced the notion of face transplants to the wider world, it is the tougher cases of celebrities like Christopher Reeve which are being used – and sometimes abused – to push for more work with stem cells, specifically embryonic ones.
To start off, stem cells are special kinds of cells that exist in very particular circumstances and which have the potential, theoretically, to turn into just about anything – a liver, a kidney, bone tissue. They are often tough to come by, and for some time one of the most popular places has been from frozen embryos that were created by fertility clinics and no longer needed. Their use opens up a minefield of debate not just about when a human life is worth respecting, but also whether these forms of stem cells are all they’re cracked up to be. And until very recently these embryonic stem cells have long been considered superior to adult stem cells, which can be derived from a variety of other sources.
‘Typically when embryos are harvested for stem cells, we’re talking about blastocytes that are five to six days old, and consist of a couple of hundred cells’, explains Greg Pike. Pike opposes embryonic stem cell research and believes that the debate over the size of an embryo or the number of cells that make it up fundamentally misses the moral point.
‘I recall a senator during the debate over stem cells saying, “well, it’s just a few cells and it’s smaller than a full-stop, so what’s all the fuss about?”, and I felt like saying back, “you’re just a clump of cells, too, only you’re trillions of them.” Stephen Hawking’s universe was once that tiny; how do you put a value on that?’
For ethicists like Pike, ‘the significance of the early embryo is that we’re talking about a new member of the human family’ – a stance he readily admits puts him at the opposite end of the spectrum from people like Peter Singer, an ex-pat Australian who is now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University in the United States. Singer, who is as much a professional avant-garde controversialist as he is an ethicist, believes that ‘just because [embryos] are biological members of the species Homo Sapiens doesn’t give them the right to live’, a position he happily takes to its horrifying logical extremes.
(Among other things, Singer believes that each life is valuable in terms of its rationality and consciousness, and argues that for that reason the life of an adult chimp is more valuable than that of a human infant. Of course, Singer also argued in an infamous essay entitled ‘Heavy Petting’ that the taboo against bestiality should be done away with.)
But between these two extremes stands a lot of misinformation, much of it perpetuated by a media that is more interested in anything-is-possible whiz-bang technology on the one hand and compassion (particularly for celebrities) on the other. When people started talking about a paralyzed Christopher Reeve being able to walk again thanks to embryonic stem cell research, the barn door was swung wide open for just about any piece of well-intentioned misinformation to run free.
‘I think part of the problem with embryonic stem cell research is that there has been a lot of publicity around celebrities pushing stem cells for research and suggesting the definite promise of therapeutic outcomes’, says Dr. Adrienne Torda, a senior lecturer in medical ethics at the University of New South Wales.
‘But the nature of research is that it is open-ended. You can’t promise definite outcomes, and there are many hurdles in developing a therapy that often take decades to resolve.’
Pike has similar concerns as Torda, and worries that feel-good celebrity involvement in ethical and scientific issues can stifle
debate. ‘I for one found it very difficult to talk about stem cells when Christopher Reeve and the idea that stem cells can make Superman walk again was being pushed by the media’, he recalls. ‘Anyone who had anything different to say felt like that had to keep their mouths shut.’
There are other ways to get stem cells – for example, from the blood in umbilical cords of newborn babies, which is often donated by parents, as well as from hair, bone, and other body tissues. Research involving these adult stem cells does not have any of the same ethical quandaries surrounding it as that which revolves around embryonic stem cells or human cloning (after all, no new human life is created or destroyed, no matter how small). Even better, after years of being thought of as second-rate, at the moment these cells also are showing the most promise in the lab.
Researchers in Israel, for example, are currently working on a treatment that borrows stem cells from a patient’s own bone marrow to produce a chemical that could restore muscle movement to Parkinson’s Disease patients; human trials are slated to begin next year. In Britain, meanwhile, work is being done that could see the end of dentures as adult stem cells are being used to grow new human teeth.
Closer to home, researchers at Griffith University in Queensland recently discovered that adult stem cells taken from the nose had just as much potential to be grown into any other type of human tissue as the far more controversial embryonic ones. ‘Our experiments have shown that adult stem cells isolated from the olfactory mucosa have the ability to develop into many different cell types if they are given the right chemical or cellular environment’, Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim told The Australian recently, further shaking the conventional wisdom that only embryonic cells are useful for research.
In speaking to Australian doctors and ethicists, one thing that comes through is a desire to break bioethics out of the ivory tower and into the wider community – even if it means letting other countries take the lead in some areas of research – so that the public is comfortable with and informed about where researchers are heading. ‘We don’t say yes to everything we can do, and we are way behind many other nations that are doing these things. We need to engage many more people in the discussion and figure out how people feel’, notes Adrienne Torda. ‘Legislation has to be constantly moving, and the more you educate people, the better you can make decisions about moving those legislative boundaries’.
While this sort of approach may be frustrating for those who see medical technology as just another high-tech space race, it is also the safest route ethically – and when one is dealing with human lives, no matter the size, doctors cannot be too careful in observing Hippocrates’ ancient edict: First do no harm. And, as recent Australian discoveries in adult stem cells have shown, sometimes the safe route is also the more successful one.
DIARY OF A CABBIE : May 05, AU Edition
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
Devoted wife, house full of kids, money in the bank.
For some passengers, it’s still not enough
Around midnight, a fella in his mid-thirties hurried out of the Bondi Hotel and approached the cab. ‘Where to, mate?’, I asked, hitting the meter and easing away. ‘Where do you suggest?’, he countered. He was looking to bat on yet had no idea where to do so late on a Sunday night.
‘What are you after’, I asked. ‘Just somewhere for a quiet drink or you wanna tear it up?’. He took a deep breath and paused to consider his preferences. Finally he said, ‘I want to go somewhere there are beautiful girls dancing – somewhere dark, but not strippers. Girls I can have a drink with and talk to’.
When I suggested a men’s club, of which there are a few in Sydney, he took offence: ‘What, you mean lap-dancers?’
‘Yeah, in the city’, I said. ‘Those girls are classier than strippers, but do pole dancing and stuff’. By now I was guessing, having never been inside a men’s club.
‘Nah, they’re just sluts who take your money’, he spat with some disgust. ‘I want regular women out for a good time’. I considered suggesting it was a fine distinction, but thought better of it.
‘Well, in that case you’ve got a number of choices’, I told him, ‘depending on how much money you have and the type of conversation you’re after’.
‘Put it this way’, he said, ‘I’m a married man with three kids. It’s not like I’m trying to pick up or anything. I just want to be close to beautiful women dancing. I want to watch them, you know what I mean?’.
No, I thought, but I’ll indulge you for a $20 fare.
‘I’ll take you to the Cross’, I said, ‘there’s a pub up there with a disco on the first floor’. After heading off I asked him, ‘You’re not from Sydney?’.
‘Yeah, I am, but I’ve been married for twelve years and never go out. I’ve got no idea about the night life’.
‘So how come you’re out tonight?’, I asked.
‘I felt like doing something different’, he replied.
After a high-profile career as a sportsman he owned and operated a chain of very successful businesses. The job exposed him to many women who thought he was wonderful, yet complained endlessly about their husbands and boyfriends. Whilst he was a good looking bloke, he had managed to stay faithful to his wife. Until he succumbed to the advances of a woman from work. ‘You slept with her?’, I asked.
‘No, but we had sex – and you know what’, he said, ‘I told my wife!’
‘Jeez, mate, you’re a thrillseeker’, I said. ‘How did she take it?’
‘Not too bad’, he said, ‘once I told her it was just sex and nothing emotional. I mean, sex on its own is simply plumbing. It’s love and affairs which threaten women’.
We approached Kings Cross in silence and I thought about what my passenger had told me. He was clearly thinking, too. A man who’d been with the one partner most of his adult life. It must feel like a betrayal of sorts I figured, no matter how one rationalised it. ‘Oh well’, I finally piped up, ‘at least you’re honest about it’.
What else could I say? It was tempting to suggest that if he was in any way fair, he must now extend the same right to his wife, though he came across as too egotistical to do so. Indeed, he never once mentioned that he loved his wife, or praised their marriage.
Whether he realised it or not, the dynamic in their long-term relationship was now altered, maybe irrevocably. Having tasted illicit sex he was now insisting he just wanted to watch beautiful women dancing. Late on a Sunday night. Yeah, right.
Good luck, mate. You’ll need it.
Read more of Adrian the Cabbie at www.cablog.com.au
MUSIC: May 05, AU Edition
Also: Thievery Corporation steals the show, and Waylon Jennings’ son is on-target
‘In Between Dreams’, Brushfire/Universal
Woody Allen once likened being mellow to a process of ripening, then rotting. Listening to terminally chilled surfer/folkie Jack Johnson’s latest album feels like a similar fate, at least initially.
Johnson blissfully faces the music – all of it – with a grin, a sandy voice, and a Catalina-bound sound. His sparsely arranged tunes sometimes lean toward soul-jazz (‘Situation’) or percolating funk (‘Staple It Together’). But there’s scarce variation to Johnson’s doggone-diddly cheery demeanor.
However, Johnson’s deceptive simplicity, subtlety and understatement become shockingly infectious upon (many) repeat listens. ‘Dreams are made of real things’, he sings on ‘Better Together’. That attitude guides his cozy romanticism through shuffles (‘Banana Pancakes’) and sambas (‘Belle’).
Oh, and he’s also releasing this latest CD in environmentally-friendly packaging and converting his fleet of tour buses to run on green bio-diesel fuel, making his band’s movements “carboneutral”.
Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi
‘The Cosmic Game’, ESL
Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the Washingtonbased duo known as Thievery Corporation, are master collaborators: The guest vocalists they enlist define the character of each album, whether it’s Bebel Gilberto on 2000’s sultry The Mirror Conspiracy, the Farsi-singing Loulou on 2002’s multi-culti The Richest Man in Babylon, or the elder-statesmen alternative rockers who join the Jamaican, African and Indian singers for the psychedelic Cosmic Game.
Anchored in the dub, trip-hop, and down-tempo club grooves that make Thievery Corporation the American Massive Attack, Cosmic Game pulses with a swirling, trippy tension that’s more pent-up than chilled-out.
‘Well, let’s start by making it clear who is the enemy here’, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne softly croons on ‘Marching the Hate Machine (Into the Sun)’, establishing the political paranoia that courses through ‘Revolution Solution’ (with Perry Farrell), ‘The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter’ (with David Byrne), and other simmering sonic journeys.
Reviewed by Steve Klinge
‘Put the O Back in Country’, Universal South
Shooter Jennings comes out swinging on his debut – and we’re not talking about Western swing. As the band leans into the chip-kicking honky-tonk of the title song, he complains that ‘there ain’t no soul on the radio’ and throws out a challenge: ‘Are you ready for the country? Are you ready for me?’
It’s not hard to figure out where he got the attitude: he’s the son of Waylon Jennings. That’s a giant legacy to live up to, and if the 25-year-old doesn’t quite yet come across as the saviour of country music, or if he doesn’t possess a voice with the deep authority of his father’s, he is certainly off to an impressive start as he stakes out his own territory.
‘Busted in Baylor County’, ‘Steady at the Wheel’, and ‘Daddy’s Farm’ are swaggering blasts of Southern rock, but Jennings shows there’s real heart behind the bravado with more reflective numbers, such as ‘Lonesome Blues’, ‘Sweet Savannah’ and ‘The Letter’.
Reviewed by Nick Cristiano
MOVIES: May 05, AU Edition
CRASH IS NO TRAINWRECK
Also: Nicole Kidman’s latest is not what you think it’s about, and Australia (finally!) produces a decent movie
Released: April 28, 2005
4 ½ stars
I’m not racist, but…’: That’s the sentiment which best sums up this gripping emotional drama about just how horribly people can treat each other. It also shows a side of Los Angeles that’s not in any tourist brochure.
In Crash there are a number of stories that intertwine (think Magnolia), each one more spiteful than the next. First there’s the carjacking: Larenz Tate and rapper Ludacris are totally believable as carjackers who think they are modern-day Robin Hoods because they only steal from rich white folks. Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock are pitch-perfect as the white-bread middle-class carjacking victims. Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito are exceptional as the police officers investigating the crime.
Next, you love to hate Matt Dillon as a racist cop who molests a black woman (Thandie Newton), putting rookie cop Ryan Phillippe in an emotional and ethical dilemma.
But for me the most powerful storyline concerns a Persian immigrant (Shaun Toub) who is trying to run a small shop and Michael Pena, who plays an unlucky locksmith who finds himself the target of years of repressed anger, frustration and despair. This pairing leads to one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen on a movie screen in a long time.
Written and directed by Paul Haggis (who adapted Million Dollar Baby), Crash could have been an unwieldy mess. But he’s a maestro who crams tension into each scene and brilliantly juxtaposes and links the stories until they build into the kind of crescendo that leaves you struggling for breath.
Crash is emotional and thought provoking. I left the cinema promising to be a nicer person.
Released: April 14, 2005
3 ½ stars
Yaaaay! Finally, an Australian film that had me laughing more than cringing! The Extra is a funny romantic romp with the loveable Jimeoin starring as…well, he doesn’t have a name in the film. Extras never do.
The premise is simple. Normal dude wants to be a movie star. Movie stars are rich, get all the chicks and go to great parties.
Unfortunately, because of an outstanding lack of talent, all he can manage is a few roles as an extra. Viewers travel along with Jimeoin in all of his wide-eyed innocence as he meets jaded child stars, pompous lead actors and money sharks in pursuit of his dream.
It’s the same old crew Jimeoin always surrounds himself with, but when you’ve got a great cast, why mess with it? Jimeoin has the simple bloke routine down pat. His sunny optimism makes him a loser one cares about.
But it’s not just about the star: there’s also a great supporting cast to back up The Extra. Rhys Muldoon nearly steals the show as Curtis Thai-Buckworth, a former child star who’s now a ‘writer-slash-director’: his desperation is palpable. Katherine Slattery is luminous as Jimeoin’s love interest. Forget Julia Roberts – Katherine has the best smile in the biz. Bob Franklin is up to his usual standard as the underworld gangster with a brain. Kristy Hinze is beautiful but vacant. And Shaun Micallef is at his arrogant best as Detective Ridley, a cop with his own TV show who wants to be an actor.
Seriously, just to see the flare with which he his flicks open his police badge is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The Extra is fun, it is well made, and it shows there’s still a faint pulse in the Australian film industry yet.
Released: April 28, 2005
3 ½ stars
Forget what you may have heard. Anyone who claims Birth promotes incest or paedophilia has missed the whole point.
Nicole Kidman’s latest film is a powerful story about loss, love and grief. There has been so much hype surrounding Birth that the actual story has been lost in the furor. Nicole Kidman was booed at the Cannes Film Festival because in the film her character has a bath with 10-year-old boy who says he’s a reincarnation of her dead husband. Later she kisses him. And I’m not talking a motherly peck. I know - ewww! But somehow it works.
Let me explain why. Birth is all about reincarnation. Anna (Nicole Kidman) lost her husband, Sean, to a heart attack a decade ago.
Imagine the shock when ten-year-old Sean (Cameron Bright) waltzes into her life and claims to be a reincarnation of her dead love. Anna’s family, headed up by matriarch Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), treats the boy and the idea of reincarnation with the right amount of contempt and jaded realism you’d expect rational folk to display. But here’s the creepy thing: young Sean knows all sorts of facts that only the husband Sean could have known.
There’s a stand-out scene where Anna is at the opera and the camera stays on her face for a full three minutes – a long, long time in movieland. As the music soars, emotions play across her face, and we realise at the same moment she does: she actually believes him.
Now I’m certainly not a card-carrying member of the “Our Nicole” fan club. I think she’s generally over-rated and definitely too skinny. And I certainly don’t think she deserved an Oscar for donning a fake nose in The Hours. That said, this is one of her finest performances yet. In Birth, she isn’t trying to be a movie star, she is doing what she does best – character acting. Kidman throws herself headlong into Anna’s mind, which is one faulty unit. Watching her you yearn for the intense all-consuming love Anna felt for her husband. I think it helped that she lost her signature red locks and, with a nod to Rosemary’s Baby, goes for a dark Mia Farrow-esque pixie cut.
Cameron Bright is actually ten years old. His performance as Sean is measured and wise beyond his years. He plays an adult in a child’s body so well you start thinking…well…maybe…he is a reincarnation.
Lauren Bacall is powerful as always. The music is superb. The cinematography is classy.
Did I like the film? No. It gave me the willies. I rushed home from the cinema to scrub myself under a hot shower. But the story sticks in your head for weeks and not many films do that these days.
BOOKS: May 05. AU Edition
CRAZY FOR YOU
This month’s crop of books looks at sanity – and the lack thereof – and sees novels by authors new and established
By Adam Phillips
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005. Distributed by Penguin Books. ISBN: 0241142091 $29.95
‘If sanity was a game then how would you learn to play it if the authorities could only tell you when you had broken the rules, but not what the rules were?’
In his new book, Going Sane, Adam Phillips highlights a gaping hole in our language.
Madness is lavished with attention from all quarters, but its perceived opposite, sanity, is barely ever mentioned. Famously mad characters abound in literature and the arts while their sane counterparts fade into the background. The word ‘sanity’ appears only once in Shakespeare, whereas ‘madness’ is referred to over two hundred times. Consideration is similarly uneven in dictionary definitions. Whole sciences are devoted to the study of madness, yet until now a study of sanity has been too dull a notion to consider.
Going Sane’s basic premise is that it might be useful to know what true sanity is: ‘It should matter to us, especially now, that sanity is something we can’t get excited about’. (Phillips must be using the royal ‘we’ as he is definitely getting very personally excited.)
Typically, the definition of sane is ‘not mad’. Justifiably unsatisfied with this, Phillips analyses the reasons that sanity is so difficult to define. Traditionally, madness is equated with loss of control, while sanity is law-abiding. To be mad is to be excessive, unpredictable, dangerous; to be sane is to be safe. He contends that the opposition between sanity and madness is not as absolute as has sometimes, rather often, been asserted.
Going Sane begins with the casual attitude that it will all come together in the end (which it does), but the book’s no good to anyone if you can’t get through Part One. Lengthy, muddy notes toward a definition of sanity are enough to send anyone barking. A little bit more of the humour that mitigates his earlier books wouldn’t have gone astray.
Many interesting points are raised but they lose impact in the jungle of information presented. Phillips has a habit of bracketing his insights: the sane, as so often happens, are rarely contemporary. He is clearly brilliant enough to write on these matters, so the unpolished delivery must reflect a conscious decision to keep it loose. Going Sane has no index; it’s not supposed to be that kind of book.
Anthropologists, philosophers, writers and poets are all thrown into the mix. There are quotes from the likes of Freud and Foucault, and many obscure sources too. This amalgam of quotations in Going Sane indicates an obsession with well-written doctrines, regardless of origins. The theories are expansive rather than reductive and to distil them is to deny them their scope.
For almost twenty years, Phillips worked in child psychotherapy. In Going Sane he examines many different schools of thought. There are those that believe children reflect our primitive selves and will thrive with sufficient understanding and those that sanction the taming of this wild side, all the while paradoxically aware that it’s an impossible task. He writes, ‘All modern prescriptive child-rearing literature is about how not to drive someone (the child) mad, and how not to be driven mad (by the child).’ Phillips conducts an open-minded discussion of the contemporary approaches parenting, ever so quietly exploring the folly of our ways. Did I mention he was clever?
The term ‘thought-provoking’ is bandied about like a power tool so perhaps a combination of radical and perceptive is a better way to describe Going Sane. I argued along as I read it, which was not as unpleasant an experience as it might sound. Going Sane crystallised personal beliefs and opinions on subjects that might have otherwise have passed through the censor unchecked.
Often compared to Alain de Botton (author of best-selling Status Anxiety and originally famous for How Proust Can Change your Life), Phillips is also a philosopher of happiness. Both men filter centuries of impenetrable wisdom into a palatable format fit for contemporary taste and have a reputation for laying it straight. Phillips doesn’t match de Botton’s wit and has never been anywhere near as hip. However, it could be argued that de Botton is in the business of rehash while an ambitious Phillips plots out new turf.
Colours magazine recently devoted an issue to the mentally ill featuring vivid portraits of people from all over the world confined in treatment facilities for the ‘mad’. Unnervingly, when interviewed, many of them don’t sound that unhinged. There is a photo of a man living in a small African village who has been chained to a tree stump for roughly seven years. Phillips can expound on the glamourisation of madness all he likes, but there are real people (literally) at stake who might argue otherwise. It is a shame that despite all the best intentions, academic excursions rest somewhat uncomfortably in the context of human suffering.
By Stephanie Bishop
NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005. ISBN: 1876040548 $26.95
Stephanie Bishop’s first novel, The Singing, does not have any songs in it. The ‘singing’ in this book is atmospheric - it refers to the essence of the work rather than its substance and was probably a good call given that anything along the lines of ‘Decaying Love’ would not have had quite the same ring. While a broken love story about a relationship that folds under the weight of long-term illness may not immediately have punters reaching for their wallets, the quality of Bishop’s writing certainly will.
Triggered by a chance meeting with an ex many years on, The Singing is the story of one woman’s endeavour to understand and contain the past. The relationship begins as they always do, with the sense that this was the start of the rest of their lives. After a time, the woman develops a serious illness that no one can name and quietly watches the world as her health deteriorates. Her partner assumes the role of caretaker. A natural to the task, he has a history of falling in love with fragile women. He has left his children from a previous relationship and he has also abandoned his painting for work that can support them.
The Singing is prefaced with a quote by Virginia Woolf that begins ‘the Public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot’. No doubt, Bishop is hoping to head them off at the start with this one – however, afraid of Virginia Woolf as I am, I have to say I found the story a little indulgent. Nevertheless, the writing is sublime.
With a poet’s gift for expressing the symbolic in literal terms, Bishop thankfully also has the clarity to avoid any of the funny business that often pairs with this tendency: ‘I saw words fall from him… I did not know what they were but I knew they were there. I heard them hit the ground.’ She apprehends the point in a relationship when there is nothing left to say. The heroine feels ‘like a statue of a woman whose lips are open while her mouth remains filled with stone’.
Like Woolf, Bishop is intrigued by ‘that very ordinary thing of the present depending on the past and the future depending on the present, and visa versa.’ Memory has always been a hot topic. I think both Freud and Aristotle would appreciate Bishop’s take on it: ‘We do not get over anything. It becomes, over time, less acute, but it comes back, it always comes back, hitting me hard in the chest when I least expect it and never quite making it to that tame place that is known to us as memory.’
The Singing is startlingly well-written and there is a lot of hype surrounding Bishop’s debut. Helen Garner is launching the book in Melbourne and has described Bishop as ‘a striking new voice, calm and fresh’. It even has a painting by Tim Storrier on the cover. Bishop, 25, is doing well to have the big guns on side so early in the piece but then again, good novelists almost always start young.
Stephanie Bishop has taken the time it takes to compose something beautiful and the results instil great trust in her abilities as a writer. It’s a promise not quite fulfilled, I feel, but then how many writers hit their stride on the first attempt? Helen Garner pulled it off with Monkey Grip, which was an immediate success. More recently, Gregory David Roberts managed it with Shantaram, but it does not generally work out like this; Charles Dickens is not exactly famous for Sketches by Boz.
Reviewed by Michael Morrissey:
WORKING WITH MONSTERS
By John Clarke
Random House, ISBN: 1740511549 $22.95
They intimidate. They manipulate. They show no remorse. They are superficially charming. And they may be sitting at the desk next to you. That’s the surprising –or unsurprising – message of this book. From movies like Psycho and a thousand sequels we all feel we know what a psychopath is – someone who kills without feeling – except sadistic enjoyment. Psychologist John Clarke has some grim news: the majority of psychopaths are not homicidal maniacs but are instead all around us, in the workplace.
It is a male-dominated field. Clarke estimates between one and three per cent of the adult male population are psychopaths, while only .5 to one per cent of women qualify. Clearly, women have some catching up to do, unless they’re just more subtle about it. As Clarke sees it, psychopaths are highly intelligent, score well on job applications, and often rise quickly up the corporate ladder. Having no conscience, they feel no guilt, and can therefore fly through a lie detector test.
Apart from the well-known criminal variety, Clarke analyses in detail three ‘civilian’ types of psychopath: organisational, corporate criminal and occupational. The difference between the organisational and occupational psychopath seems a bit subtle; the former is on his way up the ladder, while the latter may stay on the same rung for ages. The corporate criminal psychopath, meanwhile, has his eye on fraud.
The corporate criminal type is very similar to a con artist: the guy who plays on the victim’s weakness, extracts money for some get-rich scheme, and when challenged, as Clarke puts it, states that ‘maybe the victim really does not deserve to have the dreams fulfilled as they do not have the courage or the determination to achieve them’. The victim may at this point be asked to inject even more money into the ‘scheme’ to prove their commitment to the psychopath. The psychopath may pretend the extra money is still not enough to win back his `trust’.
Eventually, the victim, as well being financially drained, is emotionally crushed. When the scam is revealed, the victims lose confidence in their own ability to make decisions because the biggest final decision they made ‘proved to be the biggest mistake of their lives’.
It’s hard to come up with a punishment to fit the crime and Clarke doesn’t even try - that’s not his bag. Chillingly, he warns that treating rather than curing psychopaths may make them worse: in group discussions psychopaths ‘may learn more effective methods for committing crime’. Clarke does, however, make a number of practical suggestions to ‘manage’ the organisational type beginning with talking to employees about bullying.
If the pattern of manipulation and bullying sounds like someone in your office, Clarke warns against a quick amateur diagnosis and recommends a professional be called in. A warning sign of psychopathological presence: well above-average rates of resignation. Consider yourself warned.
By Sonya Hartnett
Viking, ISBN: 0670028711 $29.95
Surrender is a passionately wrought tale of adolescent obsession. The narrator, Gabriel, makes a pact with wild-boy Finnigan. To his regret, one might imagine. Or not? Blood oaths, pacts, secret societies, friendships unto death are, it seems, built into the male psyche. At a revolutionary level, let us speculate, it may be the dog-wolf in us – the part of the psyche that says survival depends on close ties with fellow warriors, banded together against the enemy.
There is a fierce poetry to Harnett’s style that sits nicely with the more inward-thinking Gabriel but less well with the near-psychotic Finnigan. Gabriel, who is in hospital reflecting on his short life, says of himself, ‘I weigh perhaps as much as a small suitcase carrying the necessities of a night’ – a lovely encapsulation of self diminishment, an insightful sliver of self doubt. When Finnigan, vicious arsonist, declares, ‘I wanted to break my knuckles on his pathetic rebellion, crack his skull on his poxy immunity’, it comes across as a tad overwritten, not the more urgent demotic voice one might expect. The narrative only allows very short excerpts from Finnigan which to my mind makes the book imbalanced.
A dual first-person narrator has worked well in such noted novels as The Collector, The End of the Affair and A One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding and it works best when the two voices are widely separated in tone and language and each given plenty amounts of space to have their say. Part of the problem I had with Surrender is I don’t relate well to books that have dogs as prominent characters. Then there is Vernon, Gabriel’s idiot brother. So we have two characters who, by necessity, have nothing to say.
The hatchet blows that suddenly strike Gabriel’s mother and father have the same leisurely yet shocking quality of the Southern Gothic novel – of, say, Flannery O’Connor – yet they shock us less. Surrender is full of a dark and vivid poetry that invites us to admire but not quite so successfully to feel.
THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0224074539 $49.95
A new novel by Philip Roth is always an event worthy of notice – will it win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award? My guess is, not this time. While Roth’s latest book has dazzling passages that show the aging virtuoso can still write like an angel, there are also plenty of dull stretches, making this an uneven work. It lacks the authoritative passion of the recent American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
The Plot Against America is a fictional re-write of American history which has the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh ousting Roosevelt as president in 1940 – a critical time in world history as Hitler’s armies were swarming over Europe. The book belongs to the growing number of novels that portray a world where Hitler won – books like The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris.
Like Hitler, Lindbergh offers political solutions in very simple terms: the election is a choice between Lindbergh and war. Choose Lindbergh and America stays out of war, choose Roosevelt and involvement in world war ensues. To the dismay of the Roth family, Lindbergh is given the mandate and America begins a slow, inevitable slide into pro-Nazi anti-Semitic fascism. A lesser writer than Roth might have had it happen at breakneck speed, yet the slowness of its unfolding is its fictional undoing. The gradual extinction of liberal pro-Roosevelt voices like popular columnist Walter Winchell and the detaining of Roosevelt himself takes too long. Worse, when they do occur they are not all that convincing nor dramatic. Dramatically speaking, the novel has a saggy midriff. The intermingling of large public events, narrated in newsreel style, and the personal lives of the Roths doesn’t quite gel.
As with most Roth novels, the best parts lie in family divisiveness – the bitter arguments between turncoat son Sandy and his father Herman, the stubborn heroism of cousin Alvin. The frighteningly bland Rabbi Bengelsdorf, connected to the Roth family by marriage, who espouses his repugnant views during an uneasy dinner party, shows Roth’s passion for ideological debate at its most lively. Alvin gets the novel’s finest line when he says that Bengelsdorf is ‘koshering Lindbergh for the goyim’. Disappointingly, Lindbergh is a remote grey presence never dynamically present and his ‘kidnapping’ by Nazis is a weird and unconvincing echo of the real-life kidnapping of his son.
In case any readers might literally believe in the gloomy events outlined in the novel, Roth includes a lengthy postscript giving potted biographies of major historical personages such as Lindbergh (the meeting with Goering and the swastika-crowned medal all true!), Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Winchell – and the full text of Lindbergh’s 1941 speech wherein he claims that Jews have a dangerously large ownership of motion pictures, press, radio and government and are using that influence to get America involved in the war.
Despite its winning touches and always-assured (though suitably doctored) historical and clever social detail, The Plot Against America lacks the grim dramatic darkness of 1984 – which was after all another ‘what if?’ novel – a black view of a world completely run by communist totalitarianism. While 1984 always seemed gloomily possible, The Plot doesn’t quite convince – and the postscript, while a fail-safe document for those who have either forgotten history (or never knew it), has the ultimate effect of sabotaging the premise on which the novel is based.
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0375435328 $49.95
Booker Prize-short listed Atonement was arguably one of the best novels of the last ten years and Saturday, McEwan’s tenth novel, is also a finely written and powerful work - though of a lesser stature.
The main character of Saturday is a highly respected neurosurgeon, loyal husband, a man of principle who, when all is said and done, is that rare thing in fiction: a good man (though some my find him stuffy). Being good is not always good enough to deal with life’s bitter twists. And goodness unassailed by wrong, evil or harm would be fictional suicide. Henry Perowne surveys all human beings through a merciless medical gaze and when he is threatened by a petty psychopath whose car he has pranged, he can’t help noticing that Baxter’s ‘poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper’ is ‘suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on stratal neurons. This in turn is bound to imply the diminished presence in the striatum and lateral pallidum – glutamic acid and decaboxylase and choline acetyltranferase’.
In short, Baxter has Huntington’s Chorea.
It’s a swag of medical minutia to flood your brain just before you are about to be thumped, but the exhaustive and meticulous detail that McEwan has lovingly researched – much in the manner we have come to expect from American rather than English novelists – serves McEwan’s dramatic purposes very well. In the end, we start to see as Henry Perowne sees. However, it’s much more than medical insight; it’s the true stuff of novelist’s irony when Perowne, who has every reason to hate Baxter for his thuggery towards his family, is called upon to operate on the fellow’s brain after he has been of necessity nearly de-brained by his son.
The passages of threatening, then escalating violence, are superbly done in thriller-like mode. These contrast with the – by comparison – almost duller passages of family background in which McEwan can sometimes sound like that other well known document-maker of twentieth century life, Iris Murdoch. Satisfying as Saturday is, it is thinly plotted compared to a Murdoch novel – it sometimes feels like a novella roller-pinned out to a novel.
The attempted political dimension to the novel – numerous encroachments into Perowne’s eyes and ears of contemporary events in Iraq, considerations of Bush – are rather less successful than the expertly detailed medical-cum-violence drama that is the book’s inner heart beat. Nevertheless, the argument between son and father brings out a more conservative side than the good surgeon expected – and makes the perceptive psychological point that different people provoke in different ways. This seems but a minor flaw in Perowne’s stable upper middle class moral strengths, which border on the priggish. The trouble with a happy marriage (choke) – and a happy family (gag) – is that it is not the stuff of arresting fiction, though McEwan makes a fair fist of it. He even gets away with the happy ending - and I’m not sure if I’m happy about that.