Hypochondria australis

The power of the living dead.Thornton McCamish says chucking pork doesn’t strengthen us, it just builds ‘generalised hypochondria’ … Boris Frankel utters some unspeakable truths …. Jason Alexandra remembers a culture of dissent … Kevin Childs goes to political market …. and Branko Miletic thinks neo-cons are at the end of the evolutionary track.

For more commentary on the election campaign, see these articles published in NewMatilda.com:

Anne Coombs paints two different political landscapes …

Adrian Glamorgan spots rising green …

Tim Pegler learns from his son …

For all NewMatilda.com’s published election commentary, see our archive .

Remember social capital? A year ago the op-ed pages groaned with talk about declining community participation and the sense that Australia was becoming a meaner ‘I’m alright Jack’ society. Even the pollies were in on it. Peter Costello took time away from the abacus to mull on ‘the tendency to think fondly of a time when people in a neighbourhood knew each other better and seemed to be closer.’

I thought of that the other day when I saw the elderly woman who lives on the streets of my suburb. She was leaning over a bin, matter-of-factly peeing on the ground where she stood, a smoke in one hand, picking through the trash with the other.

I see her quite often. Every time I do I feel a confusion of emotions familiar to many urban Australians: guilt that I should do something but somehow don’t – she probably doesn’t want me to interfere anyway – but it really shouldn’t be this way – anyway, it’s someone else’s problem, isn’t it? A social worker’s maybe…?

Of course, my guilt doesn’t do her any good. Talk about social capital didn’t do her much good either. But at least the idea got us talking about how we became so remote from one another. High principle stalked the land as we wondered at the lack of community engagement in these global, post-industrial times and asked how we might reattach ourselves to the common weal.

Then it stopped.

Both parties have some form on social capital, but there seems to be bipartisan consensus that there is no place for it or any other kind of reflective thinking in an election campaign. Values talk is fine in peace-time, but when the shooting starts, it’s time to knuckle down to interest rates and tax rebates.

It’s true that when the social capital discussion stalled, it hadn’t taken us far. Mark Latham, who has written about the subject at length, seems to conclude that the answer to disengagement is civility, mutuality and self-sufficiency. Working from he principle that any government should ‘first do no harm’, Peter Costello mildly suggested limiting public liability. ‘If people were really worried [about declining community feeling]they would presumably start flocking back into all those associations now struggling for membership,’ he told the Sydney Institute. So, que sera sera.

Of course politicians can’t legislate for more compassionate communities. And if they could, they wouldn’t talk about it. In this election the major parties have stuck to vote-buying. They defend this choice by arguing that voters want tangible improvements to their lives, not fuzzy moralising.

Anyway, it’s a practical business, getting elected. No one is going to repeat Keating’s auto-da-fe on the ‘vision thing’. With the quack science of political polling growing ever more refined, the party hacks must know what they’re doing. Look at Bill Clinton he never put on a tie without polling the tie-sensitive demographic about it first, and he was the master at getting elected.

In fairness, this campaign hasn’t been a complete washout in big picture terms: voters have real choices to make about things like health and education and the environment.

But campaigns which focus on buying votes from interest groups are not in anyone’s interest. The community is not strengthened by electioneering which carves up the country into interest groups so that pork can be more accurately chucked at them.

Worse, vote-buying panders to the inner Scrooge. Even those of us with jobs and homes think: gee, maybe I do deserve a tax break. We start to see ourselves as embattled minorities of one. It’s amazing how quickly this ‘generalised hypochondria’, as Tom Morton has described it, can sour into resentment of people who are worse off than ourselves. And then? ‘The social fabric will fray as our self-absorption rises and community engagement declines,’ as Gregory Hywood wrote in The Age last year.

Of course, what Hywood calls ‘self-absorption’ others would call long working hours, or a desperate clinging to the little they have.

Most Australians really do care about how we look after those in greatest need. So why aren’t there votes in it? Is it because real minority groups – indigenous Australians, homeless people, people living in areas of endemic unemployment – are not loud enough to attract policies? Or because poverty in Australia tends to be concentrated in specific areas which many of us never see?

If the idea of the nation means anything more than a shared economic zone, then indigenous health, refugees and foreign aid levels must be valid issues for an election campaign.

So how do we get them back into our national conversation? The best idea I’ve heard so far is ‘vote for someone else’ campaign being run by The Brotherhood of St Laurence. The campaign aims to turn our focus to policy areas which directly impact social exclusion.

Of course, a vote for more low-cost housing or more support for the mentally ill is a vote for ourselves anyway.

Thornton McCamish
is a Melbourne writer and former editor of
The Big Issue Australia.

We are all used to discussing Australian society “ but always using well-known, predictable and comfortable terms. We are swamped with familiar depictions of social and economic policy, political leaders and the national character. What if, by contrast, we were to boldly reinterpret our social organizations, social practices and values in a different language? What if we engaged in a bit of poetic licence and began calling well-known politicians, community leaders, media columnists or business people new names, such as sadists, zombies or Lilliputians?


First, we have the zombies. These are people whose brains were wired in a bygone era. They come in various political, religious and social guises. Despite their different ideas, values and policies, they share a common fate “ they are doomed to be forever marginal to mainstream Australian politics and culture. Their time has passed, if it ever really existed .

Second, we have the Lilliputians. [They] are found in abundance in educational institutions, the media, community service organizations, businesses, and in the administrative and technical professions. Their distinguishing feature is that they are small-minded and myopic. They are often well intentioned, it must be said, but they are a mixed lot. Some pride themselves on being tolerant and the initiators of enlightened change they see themselves as being at the ‘cutting edge’ of national and global innovation. Many Lilliputians are very influential policy makers and do good work: they help perpetuate some of the best “ but also some of the worst “ features of contemporary Australia.

Finally, we come to the sadists. They are also highly visible and influential in government, the business sector, think tanks and sections of the media. I am not calling these people sadists because they are into bondage and callous violence; I am calling them that because they reduce living people to objects. Whether it be their workplace practices, their treatment of refugees, or their approach to a whole range of other social issues, sadists believe in discipline and authoritarian control as paramount values. Sadism seems to me to have been resurgent “ given a dose of salts, as it were “ in Australia over the last few years … no one political party, no one industry, and no one tier of government has a monopoly on sadism. And Australia, like other societies, can be judged according to whether its leaders and policy makers encourage and strengthen life-affirming values and practices or place the greatest importance on dead things and property.

Australia has never had a totalitarian system that has had exclusive control over the character of society; the country has been influenced and shaped as much by the quality of its people’s oppositional ideas and subcultures as by the committed activism of its political movements. But now, [we are]threatened by cultural enclosure. One reason is that in the marketplace of media and other cultural industries, many valuable alternative ideas have been denuded of their oppositional impact. Instead, important and well-conceived ideas are treated little differently from all sorts of gimmicky or crackpot ideas.


The transformation of family and community life brought about by the implementing of what are called economic rationalist or neo-liberal policies has long generated “ and continues to generate “ widespread anxiety, confusion and anger. What I am particularly interested in is how this anxiety and disaffection have been expressed politically and culturally. I believe that since the late 1970s, we have witnessed the reinvigoration of a type of sadism as decision makers have restructured key socio-economic and cultural institutions and practices The reshaped political culture has spawned new species of zombies: the politically and culturally ‘undead’ the dominance of sadists has stunted political expression and cultural growth. Hence, Lilliputian policy analysts and opinion leaders have proliferated.


So, let’s look at the society we live in now. What are its most important features, socially and politically speaking? [First,] it has become a cliche to point out how notions of the ‘good society’ have become largely inseparable from personal desires for brand-name consumer goods … Second, despite a constant barrage of media stories celebrating innovation and individualism, we actually live in a society that requires a high degree of conformity. The so-called ‘creative industries’ such as advertising, software development, audiovisual production and the performing arts may depend on harnessing the non-conformist imagination. But in most other organizations and industries, all sorts of ‘stirrers’, ‘ratbags’ and dissidents are filtered out or rendered powerless by sadistic employers or conformist and over-cautious Lilliputian managers … Meanwhile, those who won’t or can’t fit in often become zombies.

Just in earlier historical periods of ‘timidity’, those living through it cannot tell how long the current phase of cultural and political conformity will last … The near absence of new alternative ideas “ ideas that are different from the safe and nostalgically familiar old ones “ is corroding Australian public and private life. A debilitating and stultifying policy consensus means that though we are living in a democracy, we are in fact missing out on democracy’s real strengths and meaning. We are living in a phoney democracy, a democracy that effectively silences or marginalises social critics who are considered ‘beyond the pale’ (especially those critics of dominant economic and environmental policies) while elevating Lilliputians to the status of ‘daring’ reformers.


Many of us worry that we live lives of dead routine. Others are too overwhelmed by work and family demands to enjoy the luxury of reflective angst, let alone make real choices of other jobs and other possible lives.

At an interpersonal level, small-mindedness and sadism are amply evident in the ethos and objectives of government institutions, businesses and cultural organizations. They are also unmistakably present at the personal level in privately expressed hopes, desire and interactions. We are often unaware of our own pettiness and callousness even as we denounce it in the behaviour of others; it’s little wonder that this blindness often serves to reinforce a larger culture of small-mindedness, indifference and sadism in the public sphere.

Boris Frankel
is a widely published social commentator, based in Melbourne. He has taught at universities in Melbourne and Sydney, and was previously columnist for
The Age Monthly Review. This is an extract from his forthcoming book Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists: The Power of the Living Dead and the Future of Australia (Curtin University Books, 2004).

Now that we live in world where all freedom fighters have been redefined as terrorists, I wonder, I mourn: where will the next Nelson Mandela come from?

In decades past – while Mandela was imprisoned “ citizens in more tolerant and mature political economies like Australia were encouraged to adopt the role of questioner. A kind of delightful, tolerant and durable scepticism prevailed in the Australia of my youth, the period after World War II. This scepticism was supported by European refugees escaping the madness of authoritarianism, militarism and various other ideologies. It was cultivated and celebrated by all classes, including the people with whom I spent my first working years, labouring on building sites and the like.

This scepticism provided a kind of certainty “ we knew it was always worth asking ‘why?’ If something was being promoted, was it just for the rich and powerful? We had wheelbarrows full of reasons not to believe experts and the establishment, but perhaps the best of these was that was that just about everybody around us thought many rules were there to be broken.

I came of age in an era when the anti-communist movement, the local equivalent of American McCarthyism, was being discredited. The mounting protest movement against the Vietnam War proved the value and wisdom of opposing the dominant paradigm, the government, the establishment. Creativity and independence of thought was celebrated everywhere. On election night in 1972, we all went to a ‘Don’s Party’ because there was one in every suburb, regardless of who you were voting for. After Kerr’s dismissal of Gough we expected the streets to be full of protestors, even if we didn’t attend. That was a sign of a vibrant democracy, exactly what our brothers and friends had been sent to Vietnam to defend.

Looking back now, this era seems like a narrow open window in the wider wall of Australian history.

I fear we are no longer cultivating and celebrating the heretics in our midst. Sitting on our distant continent – one that Keating once famously described as ‘the arse end of the world’ – we receive ‘up to date news’ by the hour, ensuring that we are no longer insulated from what TV editors think is important about what is going on ‘over there’. Instead of glorious isolation, we digest digital images and embedded ideologies via electronic umbilical cords.

At this election we have heard pledges of hundreds of millions or billions to save the Murray, or the Tasmanian forests, or Medicare, or child care, but where or what has been pledged to save our culture of dissent, our capacity to think independently? In all the bidding for top place, what have we heard about university education, as opposed to vocational or technical education? How do we stop our universities from becoming production lines for training the ‘human resources’ that our booming companies require to fuel the next share market boom?

Where will the next generation of playwrights, artists and filmmakers come from, and where will they draw their inspiration? And will they get funding, prizes and recognition if they dare to criticise those in power who control the purse strings?

The arts can play a critical role in our perceptions of who we are, but where have they been hidden in this election campaign? And science? Which should be elevated from something that discovers truth, or invents some brilliant gadget, to an organised form of scepticism (an idea I first encountered in the late 1990s, in a paper on water reform and power by Professor Peter Cullen). Australia has a powerful and proud record of scientific and artistic brilliance. Largely because we did not succumb as easily as many to authority or tradition, we had individuals who were not prepared to compromise their independence, and we supported them publicly and privately.

But a global war on terror demands subservience, compliance, order and the appreciation of authority. We now live in an era of global fear, where once every few years the most powerful people in the country talk about saving all the things they think we hold dear “ forests, rivers, health care, childcare, public schools and so on. Meanwhile the cornerstone of any functioning democracy “ the right of every person to question, to think, to decide, to not trust the bastards in power – is sinking in a quicksand of spin, obscured in a fog of billion dollar figures, where both parties play financial one-upmanship.

Can the sceptical independence, expressed through humour and robust cynicism, that once characterised the Australian spirit be bought so cheaply? If it can, lets bury it with dignity at a state funeral.

Jason Alexandra is a Melbourne writer interested in nearly everything. He makes a living as a consultant on environmental policy.

Red Hill has a name that could not be further from its political character. Nestled near the exquisite wineries, gardens and restaurants of the Mornington Peninsula outside Melbourne, it hosts a monthly market resembling a rally of hundreds of four-wheel-drives. Scarcely a political poster could be seen at last Saturday’s market, in this blue blood Liberal stronghold once held by Peter (‘children overboard’) Reith and Phillip (‘not a scintilla of [Vietnam torture] evidence’) Lynch.

Among the hundreds of stalls selling Gourmet Traveller-style home produce, however, I spotted a nurseryman with this tiny sign:

Say No

Such statements are rare. Across Melbourne, at least, inertia has infected this election. Few car stickers. The occasional Greens poster, often in a frontyard choked with weeds and overgrown grass. Some caricatures of Howard with an elongated nose. As for passion, forget it.

This flaccid mood was perfectly caught by the Sunday Age, which cheerfully ignored all the lies, the desert camps, the dead or mad refugees. The illegality, loss of dignity and the disgrace the Howard government has brought upon Australia.

Instead, the Sunday Age editorial blithely concluded: ‘While that situation remains, we can trust in one thing: our politicians will, by necessity, continue to focus largely on their self-interest and the electoral appeal of their party. And individuals face choices that are influenced more than ever by their own circumstances. As a result, we feel it inappropriate to lecture individuals on how they should vote in the best interests of the nation.’ Sydney’s Sun-Herald trotted out this cliche: ‘Our hearts say Latham but our heads say Howard.’ In a recent front page headline, Melbourne’s Herald Sun described Howard’s big-spending as a ‘plan’. Not a splash, spend-up or vote buy, but a good old plan. And the British Economist magazine, which last time around called for Howard’s removal, now finds the case for change ‘distinctly uncompelling’, and believes Australia has been a valuable participant in the war in Iraq.

Crossing to the other side of the Atlantic, New York Times columnist and brilliant economist Paul Krugman does not even know Australia is there. Last weekend he wrote of his nation’s loss of moral authority with the revelation of prison torture, and he denounced a plan by Congressional Republicans to legalize the sending of terrorism suspects to countries that use torture, such as Egypt, Syria or Jordan.

‘But the rest of the world has already lost faith in us,’ wrote Krugman. ‘In fact, let me make a prediction: if Mr Bush gets a second term, we will soon have no democracies left among our allies – no, not even Tony Blair’s Britain. Mr Bush will be left with the support of regimes that don’t worry about the legalities – regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia.’

No mention of Australia?

Meanwhile back on the Australian ranch, our tories are hammering on about interest rates. What about Al-Khateb, the stateless Palestinian the High Court condemned by a one-vote majority to prison for the rest of his life, or until some nation volunteers to take him? Does he rate? Are we interested? Recent revelations about child pornography have repelled and revolted us. Do we feel the same about our government’s abusive treatment of refugee children?

We wait till Saturday tells.

Kevin Childs
is a Melbourne writer and media consultant.

Evolution can be cruel and effective but is not always foolproof.

For example, marsupials as warm-blooded mammals have perfectly adapted to the Australian climate. Over time marsupials have not had to change much. Their biggest adaption has been down-sizing – they got smaller and more compact as the climate became dryer, without necessarily becoming any more intelligent. Without any predators to worry about, major change to their structure was unnecessary.

In many ways, the political rise of the New Right has paralleled that of marsupial development. Globally, liberal capitalism has given way to laissez faire market fundamentalism, which in turn has morphed into rabid neo-con fundamentalism. Neo-conservatism is obsessed with the individual, enamoured with outdated or mythological social mores, and captivated by the bright lights of selfishness, greed and instant self-gratification. As a political philosophy, neo-conservatism has evolved without any competition, as the Left (and then the New Left) has withered into obscurity. Why change when you have a monopoly in the jungle?

Unlike Marxism, socialism or even fascism, all borne out of conflict and bitter struggles against exploitation and social injustice, the neo-con phenomenon was born into an era without defining conflict. While Marx and Engels penned their treatises in the glow of the Industrial Revolution, neo-conservatism seems to have been crafted in the car park of the local Starbucks.

Neo-cons pay lip service to competition, but not in application to themselves. They do not regard political differences as being valid, and have a narrow interpretation of ‘rights’ based on their own assertions and capacity for dominance. Howard’s New Right, which champions competition in the economic sphere, is even unwilling to tolerate like-minded political competition “ as Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party discovered in 2003. As for real political opponents, recall West Australian senator Ross Lightfoot’s attempt to silence a perfectly legal and peaceful protest by Greens Senators Kerry Nettle and Bob Brown during President Bush’s visit to the Australian Parliament in 2003. Afterwards, Lightfoot was less than apologetic. Despite ‘backing into Nettle and flailing his arms, [h]e later denied he had intended to strike either senator, although: ‘I think Senator Brown and Senator Nettle would have walked into my elbows’,’ reported Mike Seccombe in the Sydney Morning Herald.

And as for Lightfoot’s verbal approach to his colleagues, see the following extract from a ” target=”_blank”>stated on Nine’s Sunday programme:

…saying that this kind of behaviour is a normal part of Australian political culture is a bit like saying that you know gang bangs and group sex are “ are part of rugby league culture. Just because it happens, doesn’t make it right.

Like marsupials, neo-cons are a dead-end in evolutionary terms. But at least marsupials are cute and furry, with moist noses, ranking high on cuddle factor. These attributes generally don’t apply to neo-cons. With no originating conflict by which to define themselves, they generate it. This explains why neo-con politicians like John Howard rely so heavily on waging the continuous faux-war that has become known as the ‘war on terror’. At home, this has seen Howard the Liberal, the inheritor of a great tradition of liberalism, use law and rhetoric to quash many freedoms in this country. The tragedy of this is only compounded by the mainstream media’s acquiescence in the whole charade.

As humans, evolution has carried us to the top of the biological pile. However, events in Australia in recent times have shown that political (and media) monopolies deliver both social regression and an intellectual wasteland. Recently, the respective American scientific magazine Nature carried the following headline, above an article by anthropologists detailing prehistoric human development: ‘SURPRISINGLY RAPID GROWTH IN NEANDERTHALS’. Perhaps this was not so much about the distant past, as a reference to events very much in our present.

Branko Miletic is the editor of two trade magazines and has worked in broadcasting and print media both in Australia and overseas.

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