Australian Diary: May, 2017

WEEK 8 – May 1, 2017.

You’re supposed to see the main attractions. That’s what you do when you travel to a new city. In the past two weeks Candace and I traveled to Sydney and Melbourne. And yes, we went to see some of the main tourist sites. If you’re in Sydney it’s a given that, from some vantage point or other, you’ll see the Opera House. Yet when we returned to Canberra I found myself somehow slightly dissatisfied. Each time we travel I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to see the trip in terms of a checklist of places to see or things to do. Travelling around for food and drink remains immune to this malaise for now. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, in his discussion of the virtue of temperance, those are needs that have to be met by all human beings. Happily, I can still easily justify searching out Sydney’s best ramen or Melbourne’s most tantalizing nitroglycerin gelato (yes the latter is a real thing).

When we were in Melbourne we went to the National Gallery of Victoria, which was running a photography festival. Even though I was a bit disinclined to go to a gallery, the chance to see William Eggleston’s portraits was just too good to pass up. I was wary not just for reasons to do with being a typical tourist though. For just before leaving Montreal we had attended a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Museé des beaux-arts. That exhibit was very well attended, and I found myself wishing I had more time and more space to consider the photographs. In such cases I think I would almost rather pay for the exhibition book than attend the exhibition itself, since in some respects that allows for a more intimate, ongoing interaction with the artwork. There was at least the small consolation of witnessing a steady series of mild shocks and surprises. The selection from Mapplethorpe’s erotica was not entirely unexpected, since the signage was quite clear, but it still caught plenty of visitors unawares (including me). Part of the erotica section was displayed on a see-through wall that left you exposed to the view of others, something I imagine was intended.

Thankfully the Eggleston exhibit in Melbourne was not as cramped. In fact, it was very generously spaced and did not have an overwhelming number of images. That allowed Candace and I to linger and to quietly talk about which images moved us, though occasionally it made comparisons difficult. Eggleston is not to every critic’s liking – who is, really? – but his vision is frequently stimulating. As someone who adapted early to colour photography, he knew how to capture scenes which blend composition and commentary in a particularly insightful way. Consider the well-known untitled photograph (c. 1969-70) of Eggleston’s uncle Adyn Schuyler Senior with his assistant Jasper Staples. There is much to be said about this photograph. But what jumps out almost immediately is the way in which Jasper mimics the posture and gaze of his employer/superior Adyn. Here, in what may have been the briefest of (decisive) moments, Eggleston shares with us an intimate portrayal of everyday power in the American South. The chance to see the power of such photographs was well worth forgoing any hang-ups I’d had about being a typical tourist.

WEEK 9 – May 7, 2017.

As we settled in, staring ahead at the TV, the large, circular green room filled with innumerable blue suits. A quiet fell across the room. Then a round-faced, bespectacled man approached the podium. When he gets going, after a few faltering deliveries, Scott Morrison intones his words as if he were speaking undoubtable truths. Only a fool would dare to disagree, his delivery suggests. “Here, here,” they echoed again and again, sitting behind him. It was banal political theatre, but of the most important kind. It was Australia’s 2017 budget speech.

“Labour lite,” they would call it afterwards. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull “the fixer” had finally arrived, they would write in subsequent days. At present Australia is ruled by a coalition Liberal-National government with the slimmest of majorities. To judge by the consensus of journalists I’ve read since arriving in Canberra, the Turnbull government has not charted a consistent or distinct course since its election in 2016. Instead, it has appealed to a wide swath of Australians from the centre to the right of the political spectrum. Apparently the 2016 budget was a bit of a mess, perhaps a case of a recently-elected government trying to find its feet. The 2017 budget isn’t crystalline, but it does seem to be more in keeping with Turnbull’s centre-right politics. However, he’s still caught in something of a conundrum. Having trashed the 457 visa – the same visa on which Candace and I came to Australia, alas – and having kneeled repeatedly at the altar of nativism in recent weeks – “Australia first,” “Australian jobs for Australians,” et cetera ad nauseum – the Turnbull government’s budget increases both spending and taxes.

The ABC has a handy webpage dedicated to the question of what got more funding and what didn’t in this year’s budget. Most Australians will be paying more tax, in the form of a temporary levy, to help cover healthcare costs. But the Turnbull government is also attempting to regulate and levy a tax on the unpopular big banks too. The banks may reject this measure or simply pass the costs on to the consumer, which Morrison warned the banks not to do in the days after his budget speech. While the Turnbull government will fund primary schooling in a more consistent manner, adopting the policy proposals of Phil Gonski, post-secondary students face a 2.5% increase in tuition. And while there’s an attempt to address the housing crisis with a first-time home owner’s scheme that enables Australians to use part of their superannuation as a down-payment (it’s unclear what impact this will have on property prices), new welfare recipients will be required to take a drug test. Australian businesses will have to pay more to employ foreign workers, with the money generated being channeled into a fund to train the Australian workforce. Major new infrastructure projects were announced in this budget too, including highways, train lines, and an airport west of Sydney, as well as regional development programs.

My impression is that the Turnbull government is attempting to portray itself as acting decisively on several fronts: first, against the perceived threat of unwanted foreigners; second, against the perceived burden of undeserving Australians on social assistance; third, for the continued growth of the free market and the maintenance of “balanced books”; and fourth, for the continued development of institutions and infrastructure, the legitimate arenas of activity for government in a geographically large country. Does this messaging match the specific content of this year’s budget? Will enough Australians be persuaded that this government is acting in their best interests? That, of course, remains to be seen.

WEEK 10 – May 14, 2017.

First, a few borrowed words from a review of a biography of Patrick White – misanthropy, disgust, practicality, realism, resilience, humility, sense (LRB, 15 Aug 1991). They seem to fit, and not just for White, but for his novel Voss specifically. It’s clear that White’s sympathies are broad: high and low, rich and poor, refined and common, men and women, colonizer and colonized. With a series of impressionistic brushstrokes, men, women, and children – to say nothing of places – come to the precision of full, constrained, imperfect life. Voss is a canvass full of studied and contrasting characters.

At the centre of the novel stand Miss Laura Trevelyan and Johann Ulrich Voss. The year is 1845. Laura, an orphan from England, is living near Sydney with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Bonner, and their daughter Belle. The Bonners are a colonial family whose mercantile success has been adequately translated into social capital, with Belle’s personality and marriage being the embodiment of colonial bourgeois aspiration. Voss is a German explorer whom Mr. Bonner has commissioned for an expedition into the Australian outback, the aims of which are, to say the least, rather vague. The general structure of the story – the expedition’s fateful progress through the desert – is entwined around the dynamic, willful personalities of the arrogant, assertive, mythical Voss, and the intellectual, peculiar, forceful Laura. The two do not get along at first, but, as the story unfolds, iron sharpens iron. When Voss sets out into Australia’s unknown he engages Laura as his eternal spiritual companion, conversing with her across time and space.

Voss is an extravagant, demanding novel, the first winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin literary award. While reading it I was frequently annoyed and sometimes bored. The regularity of seemingly irrelevant conclusions was consistently distracting. Though, having said that, it is perhaps wrong to read the novel with textbook logic in mind.

To appreciate what Voss attempts to do, it might make sense to situate it in terms of its conception of art. And here, given that Voss is German, I am immediately reminded of two fellow travellers from the nineteenth century. Like Voss, both assert the power of the human will over nature: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Rather than depict the human will as the spiritual source of the good, the true, and the beautiful, these two philosophers raged against their contemporaries, underlining the amoral strength of the will’s power, derived from its drive to perpetuate itself. It seems to me that Voss benefits from such a context. For no real explanation is offered about what drives the protagonist. He speaks of his own desire as if he had no choice in the matter, as if the journey across the Australian unknown was fated from the start. Voss believes in God. At one point he speaks of atheists as those whose unbelief stems from their pitiful self-conceptions. He thinks most atheists attack a God who is far too much like themselves. As a Christ-like figure, wandering in the dessert, guiding his disciples and healing them, Voss is himself associated with the divine. But this divinity is not the Christian God. For Voss despises humility. Rather his God is titanic, a force of existence that blows where it will.

WEEK 11 – May 21, 2017.

When the credits started to roll, I decided to go for it. Somewhat awkwardly, I stood up and asked my fellow movie-goers a question. There were only five of us in the theatre, and I had a hunch that we were all Christians. At Hoyt’s, Belconnen, in a suburb of Canberra, we had just finished watching The Case for Christ. I was there for two closely related reasons: having read the book by Lee Strobel as a teenager (it came out in 1998), I was curious about how it would be translated to film, and I wanted to know what message it was sending and to whom.

“What did you think of the movie?” I asked. At first they were a little bit wary of me. I had a funny accent, and what I was doing didn’t exactly square with typical social behaviour. Thankfully, Australians are not averse to such things. I tried to sound as friendly as I could, and to reassure them I wasn’t a hostile inquirer. “I’m just curious,” I said, “I’m not a reporter or anything like that.”

It turns out I was right. We were all Christians. The older couple was Catholic, the younger couple was Anglican, like me. I told them I was a Christian too, hoping to put them at ease. I won’t go into the details of what they said here, since I’ve written a movie review I hope to publish somewhere. But suffice it to say my fellow movie-goers thought The Case for Christ showed the power of Christian witness and usefully reminded them of the truth of their faith. That was more or less what I had expected before seeing the movie. And while they thought the movie was “well made,” and they were happy a Christian movie was in the theatre, at least one of them thought the story was a bit slow.

“Who is this movie for?” I asked. The younger Anglican couple, who talked to me for about five minutes, thought that it was primarily for Christians. I suggested that it was likely targeted towards American evangelicals, but they pointed out to me that they did not consider themselves evangelicals, and that the older couple weren’t even Protestant. However, they also said that they didn’t think the movie would be something non-Christians would be interested in watching, at least not for the $20 it costs to see a movie at Hoyt’s. They did think that someone who had questions, or someone who was “searching for answers,” as Christians sometimes put it, might go and see the movie.

I first learned about The Case for Christ movie from Candace. One of her co-workers, who is also a Christian, mentioned that she was going to see it. It turns out she was mildly disappointed. The movie isn’t the book. If the book reads like longform journalism, complete with personal sketches and narrative details, then the movie tries to use the longform piece as a catalyst for what is essentially a family drama. In the movie Lee Strobel is a family man and a determined atheist. As a journalist his allegiance is to the facts and to the truth. So, when Lee’s wife Leslie becomes a born-again, megachurch-attending evangelical, Lee is alienated and sets out to show his wife that Christianity doesn’t accord with the facts or the truth. The tension in the film is basically the drama of a white, middle-class, suburban family in 1980s middle America. If you were to translate this story out of its evangelical setting and into something more in keeping with Hollywood norms, I think it would be unremarkable, and probably boring. At the very least, the hold on the viewer depends largely on whether or not you are already predisposed to find an (American) evangelical’s way of looking at the world compelling.

So if this movie is primarily for evangelicals and their fellow-travellers, what does it say to them? On the face of it The Case for Christ tells them that there are good reasons for evangelical faith, based on what it regards as an unbiased reading of the facts, and that those good reasons are ultimately sanctioned by God’s providence. Put in terms of the movie’s plot, in the same way a family can overcome relational adversity, with help of the Pauline virtues of faith, hope, and love, evangelicals can stand firm in their convictions even when it seems the (cultural? political?) odds are against them. American evangelicals present themselves with another reassuring story in which they are on God’s side, fighting the fight good and true.

WEEK 12 – May 28, 2017.

This week on my run I was listening to “The Bobcast” with TSN’s Bob McKenzie. In Episode 15 of the show Bob talked about technology and rule-changes in the NHL. One rule change he focused on was the coach’s review. For those who don’t know, when a goal is scored the coach of the team on whom the goal was scored has a chance to use a review of the play using video, to see whether or not the entrance into the offensive zone was offside or not. There is a risk, however. If the coach loses the challenge, and the referee upholds the onside play and thus the goal, the team whose coach challenged the call is penalized. They lose their time out. In this episode Bob basically retracted his early enthusiasm for the video review by coach’s challenge. His stated reason for changing his mind was that he did not foresee how the video review would slow down the pace of the game. Basically, as he now sees it, there isn’t enough of a disincentive for the coach not to use his challenge when the entrance into the offensive zone is close. As a result, the game stops more often and for a fairly lengthy period of time.

In this discussion Bob raised the topic of technology and asked a few generic questions about sports: does more technology inherently make the game of hockey better? And does more technology eliminate the subjective interpretation of in-game events by referees? His answer was fairly subtle. In general Bob argued that technology made the game better. Plus, he rightly observed, technology had been and would continue to be a part of professional sports. But more technology does not always mean better. The game might suffer, he suggested, even if you had more cameras focused on the ice, for instance. Would getting an offside call right, but taking two to five minutes to get that call correct, make the game better? Or, would it be better to live with the fact that some calls by the referees would be wrong, but the play of the game would continue with greater flow and possibly more interest? Long stops in play can suck the momentum out of a game, and momentum plays a big role in hockey games, particularly in the playoffs. More stops in play could actually determine the outcome of games, which nobody wants to see happen.

In making this case Bob picked up on a couple of themes in sports that happened to coincide with something I had been reading this week, J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. Here’s what the quasi-fictional author of that novel has to say about the historical transition from sports-as-leisure to sports-as-profession: “The confrontation between a nostalgic, backward-looking view of sport and the view that predominates today may have an analogous cultural value. That is to say, the argument that the past was better than the present cannot be won, but at least it can be bravely put.”

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