Of PETA the sheep and pixels


For all I know you can probably get an electronic device that plugs into the TV and reads the level of charisma of screen images. The images are in fact all I have to go on, since I have never met John Howard or Mark Latham face to face. So when I say the words ‘John Howard’ I am really only talking about a set of pixels. And some sound waves.

During the recent federal election the top readings on the charisma device would have consistently gone to the Rat and to PETA the sheep. There is something scary, something sinister, about life-size sheep and rats whose masks conceal an unknown human being. An odd thing about PETA and the Rat, I thought, was that PETA (who would get the higher reading on the device) was more frightening than the rodent, whereas you would expect it to be the reverse. Viewers didn’t necessarily know what message PETA was trying to get across. (The question of live sheep exports didn’t really get an airing in the campaign, alongside war, and refugees, and indigenous issues and anything not nicely connected to greed.)

PETA was so very unsettling, but people are accustomed by now to images that frighten them, and they are drawn to these images. They are so attracted to them that they will now flock to the lying image of the Spooky One (Bush, Blair, Howard) who promises to give them even more than thirty pieces of silver and lead them to the Crusades in a handbasket. The Crusades? Didn’t that ring a bad bell? Apparently not.

The device that reads the levels of charisma can read not only positive, but also negative, going down to minus thirteen. Thus it appeals to the broad electorate’s primitive, superstitious nature. This is terribly important to understand. Images that are un-interesting just flat-line on zero, as if the thing can’t waste time and energy. So there is in fact no reading at all for the TV images of Kim Beazley or Simon Crean. The thing just kind of sighs and yawns and puts its hands over its ears as the voices of these two whine and splutter and spray spit onto the screen. Helplessly. For a while, when it was a dangerous thug in narrow spectacles, the image of Mark Latham got a little two or three out of ten. Then he put on his shiny golden tie. And suddenly he turned into a crude, arrogant school prefect pumping the little head-master-hand of the image of the Prime Minister. And he fell back to zero zzzzzzzzz. Winning debates did nothing. The pixels went to the PM.

Some images light up the charisma reader like crazy below the zero line. On his old image Saddam Hussein, for instance, gets a very powerful negative reading below the line. But then as soon as they stuck the cotton bud in his mouth he just flat-lined on the zero. And as you might expect, the Adolf Hitler image is a beauty down there in the black hole of negative charisma. Face it, people, human beings can be fatally drawn to the dark side, can fall at the feet of the Prince of Lies. It is clear that nobody will ever capture John Howard, will never topple his statue, will never get the cotton bud into his cheek. For he has an amazing quality of negative charisma, and the ability to extinguish the very stars with his tricky, whirling cloak of darkness. What is down there in the blackness is a country, you know, a desert, a wilderness of Lost Souls.

When it became clear at 7.30 (8.30 in Tasmania) that Labor had lost the election, I turned off the TV and opened Finnegans Wake. You know how it is possible to open, for instance The Bible or Nostradamus or The Yellow Pages, and light upon some very telling verse? Well I swear that when I opened Finnegans Wake that night my gaze fell upon this: ‘This is the glider that gladdened the girl that list to the wind that lifted the leaves that folded the fruit that hung on the tree that grew in the garden Gough gave.’ No, I am not sure how it is relevant, or even what it means, but when I read it I stared and gasped, and I felt the condemned prisoner’s sense of a future hope of reprieve. I think it was a false feeling though.

I am spiralling into a metaphor soup here, but I can’t help developing the idea of the garden. The image of Gough, as you might have guessed, reads very high on the charismatic scale – a tall, tall poppy, you might say. Likewise Hawke and Keating. It was a long time ago, when Gough planted the garden; times have certainly changed. And the garden seems to have fallen into decay, choked by weeds, bedevilled by caterpillars. Are they perhaps the weeds and caterpillars of nostalgia? Is the blight of the memory of victories past shrivelling the asparagus? Where are the fruit trees of Finnegans Wake? For that matter where are the trees? Well may you say Gough Save the Old Growth Forests, but who will save Bob Brown? (Bob has had high charisma readings in the past, but although he has never put on the fatal golden tie, he is getting close to flat-lining.)

How can the Labor Party get a better set of pixels, a winning wave of sound? Has it come down to this? PETA the sheep, and the Rat, and the power of negative charisma on the screen? Howard has it, that negative screen black hole charisma. The trouble is that Labor leaders not only do not have it, they do not want to have it. But how else to lead a country that is more interested in greed than in compassion, or even common sense? It’s the puzzle of the pixels. And you don’t really need a charisma reader do you “ and you need more than a sheep.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.