When the world changes, stories help

Our election is over. Peculiarly and wonderfully so.

There are many, many reasons why the result is what it is. Those reasons include social justice, concern about climate change, fear of the Morrison government, loss of the centre-right part of the Liberal Party (the independent ‘teal’ candidates filled the hole left by the party’s shift right). One part of the equation, however, is very Australian. We see the world in our way, after all, and not through the eyes of any other country.

I don’t want to give an explanation. It would turn something light into something ponderous. Instead, I’m going to suggest you read some short stories. They’re all from over a century ago and they all demonstrate that the peculiarity and wonder come from somewhere very Australian.

If you want to read just one short story, try Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog.” I’ve found you a link to the 1901 volume it appeared in, with a glossary.

If you see the specially Australian approach to life, the story will resonate and be very funny. If you don’t, it won’t. This saves me 500 words of weighty and possibly futile explanation.

If you want more along these lines, we have a whole literature. Steele Rudd’s stories about farming are good (Dad and Dave, On Our Selection), because colonisation was a bit different here to elsewhere. Just as wrong-headed, but we didn’t only celebrate the big and glorious. We also told stories about the small farmers who really had no idea what they were doing. Australia has always looked to small people and their lives and our literature celebrates it. And we celebrate that literature.

Decades ago, I was at a camp for university students. John Bluthal (the actor) talked to us about working with Spike Milligan. Then he moved onto a radio play of Rudd’s work. He told us how, as Dave in a dramatisation of Dad and Dave, he had no time to read the script beforehand. He was on live radio, reading straight into the microphone. Dave was famously slow of speech.

“Dad,” Bluthal drawled into the microphone, recreating the radio play. “Dad, you need to know…” He turned the page. “The shed is burning!”

Looking to small people and their lives, being aware of how foolish the whole of politics was becoming, needing to mock and put everyone back in their place: these factors changed the votes of many last weekend. My favourite example is how a conservative region of a conservative state voted Labor for the first time ever, because they wanted to bring a family home and Morrison said he never would allow it.

Now I’m wondering about my own fiction and about that of quite a number of other writers. We focus on the small, because in the small, implicit in the everyday, lies the whole universe. Those Australian writers who follow different paths to me may write to explore isolation and our challenging land, or to deal with baggage many of us bring here when we settle, or to look bullies in the eye and show where we go wrong. Some, however, write for an international market. In the nineteenth century and right through to the 1960s, that international market was the UK. Now, it’s more likely to be the US. When you can’t tell that the writer is Australian, when they lack that sensibility that marks the work as uniquely and bizarrely Antipodean, then that writer is probably writing for a different audience and marching to a different drum.

The Australian drum that resounded on Saturday occasionally skipped a beat or took a few polka steps. Marching? That’s not our way.

In Times of War: How Will This End?

At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

How to vote, Australian-style

A tweet is going round to encourage people to enrol to vote. It suggests that if they don’t, they are fated to be gently mocked by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). This tweet suggests that maybe, just maybe, Australia might be a bit different to other countries. We’re only talking about a small portion of potential voters not enrolled, after all. 97% (and maybe a fraction more) of people who were eligible to vote were enrolled before the election was called. This is a higher % than usual, but not crazy high.

The thing is… Australians vote. It’s compulsory to vote, but, if we really wanted, we could return blank ballots. Nothing’s stopping us. We take an exceptional level of responsibility for government in this way, and the big question is, every election, whether the object of our vote has lived up to expectations. Accountability is that much higher when it’s not 30% of those who can vote, nor 60%, but nearly 100%.

What is at stake this election is whether we live up to our own responsibility and judge fairly. Last election enough people fell for promises (that didn’t eventuate) and trusted that nothing critical was being hidden (alleged rape by a politican turned out to be the thing that was hidden) that we voted in Scott Morrison. On May 21, nearly 100% of Australian voters will be deciding if this is worth doing again or if it’s time to vote differently. The LNP have, historically, been in power more often than any other party, which makes it their election to lose this year.

Given we almost all vote, a lot of the issues that apply in other countries are simply irrelevant. It means I can get straight to the nitty gritty of what we are voting for, how we vote, and how those votes are counted.

Australia is a federal government. The national elections rest, therefore on our regions. We fill in two ballots on election day. Let me walk you through them both.

Lower House: House of Representatives

The Members of Parliament (MPs) are chosen by a really straightforward ballot system. Australia is divided into electorates and those electorates are determined by the Australian Electoral Commission according to population (and to avoid gerrymandering). Candidates nominate for an electorate and try to persuade voters to put them high on the ballot.

The actual ballots contain all the names of the candidates, and we (the voters) have to number each and every box. We don’t chose our favourite person and walk away. We put all the candidates in our preferred order. Parties give out ‘How to Vote’ papers, that help their followers choose an order the party like.

I like to say that how the votes are counted is simple, but that’s because I’ve known it all my life. If a candidate gets over half the vote, then it really is simple: they’re elected. If no candidate gets over half the vote, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from the list and the 2nd choices of those voters are added to the numbers of votes for the remaining candidates. The dropping of someone and reallocation of their votes continues until someone wins. In this system, first preferences are only reliable in some electorates. Quite a few MPs win their position from the distributed preferences of voters who had other first choices. What I love about this system is that more of our votes count, especially in an election like this one where many voters are reconsidering their traditional choices.

Some voters are not as enthusiastic as I am. They do a donkey vote or a reverse donkey vote. A donkey vote is when you start from the top with #1 and simply number down. Because donkey votes can change a very narrow result, the AEC has techniques in designing the ballot that will reduce this effect. (Donkey votes don’t work as well for Senate ballots.)

The leader of the party that wins the most votes in this House becomes Prime Minister (PM). They lead the country.

The Queen is technically the Head of Government and an appointed Governor-General acts on her behalf in the everyday technical things that must be done by the Head of Government, but the Prime Ministership is where the real power lies. The Governor-General can sack the PM, but that doesn’t happen often. Let me give you a video of an important moment in our history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXq056TJhU4&t=2s The moment where Whitlam declared his view of his sacking is now part of our deep cultural selves, and his statement beginning ‘Well may we say “May God save the Queen”…’ is one of the great one-liners in our history. You can buy mugs emblazoned with it, at the Museum of Australia.

Senate

The Senate is our upper house (like the US or Canadian Senate, in that way, and historically, a modified version of them) but its chief role is accountability. It’s very strong on research, on checking budget and on investigating propose legislation and how the practice of government is carried out.

Entirely irrelevantly, when I was a public servant I was never allowed to attend any of the Senate Estimate Committee sessions. Technically I was senior enough, but at that time there was a senator who went above and beyond the call of…something. She investigated private lives of key public servants and when they turned up to answer questions about the portfolio, asked them about their failed marriages. Way more senior people presented that material at that time, and answered those questions – the reasoning was that Sen. Bishop had already done her worst to them. This led to way less effective Senate Estimates than earlier or later, and to different career trajectories for public servants and less interchange between Parliament House and the public service. I watched from my safe desk and decided that ethics were practical as well as being good for all the philosophical reasons.

That’s enough detour!

How are Senators elected? Every State elects twelve senators, and the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (the ACT is mostly Canberra, the capital) each elect two. Other parts of Australia (we have so many islands!) vote with the appropriate State or Territory. Norfolk Island (which is where the descendants of the Bounty mutineers ended up) votes as part of the ACT, for example.

This is not proportional. Tasmania, with a population of around 540,000 elects twelve Senators and the ACT and its adjunct places, with around 430,000 people elect two Senatorss.

The Senate ballot is fun to fill in but painful to explain. I’m going to send you to the AEC, because they have pretty diagrams: https://aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_Vote/Voting_Senate.htm

I always fill in below the line. I also fill in every single box even though I don’t have to. I begin at the bottom and put the people I never want to see in a position of responsibility right down the bottom and I work up from there. When I talk about deciding who will get my #1 and #2 for the Senate, it’s misleading, because I investigate all the candidates.

The votes are counted in a way that is just a tad confusing to anyone new to it. The AEC uses a formula to determine a Senate quota (Number of formal ballot papers / (Number of senators to be elected + 1)) rounded down + 1 = Senate quota)

If a candidate gets a quota or more of first preferences, then they are elected. The votes that are over the quota are theoretically transferred ie they will be counted again, towards another candidate. Except that this isn’t fair. It’s impossible to tell which votes to count for first and which to transfer. So everything is transferred… but a reduced rate ie each vote is worth a bit less, but all votes are counted for the #2 choice. Unsuccessful candidates are excluded, exhausted votes are dropped (an exhausted vote is when a ballot has run out of marked choices – they can’t be transferred down the line if there is no candidate to transfer them to). This system continues until the correct number of Senators is elected. If you want to fully understand this system (which I love, but which I admit is complex) then the best place to look is the AEC website: https://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/counting/senate_count.htm

Because we have compulsory voting, voter education is terribly, terribly important in Australia and an important part of the AEC’s role. The above-the-line and below-the-line options for voters for the Senate gives me the perfect excuse to show you how the AEC educates voters: https://aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_Vote/Voting_Senate.htm

House of Representatives votes are usually counted by midnight on the night of the election. Not always. A complex result can take a few days longer, because some electorates need extra checking and recounting. The Senate always takes longer to count.

Now you know about counting. How about the elections themselves. Here’s a newspaper summary of things, so you can skip reading my undeniably strange prose if you want (this is a long post!): https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/politics/australian-politics/federal-election-2022/2022/04/10/election-called-what-net/

For those of you still with me, the House of Representatives has 3 year terms and the Senate 6 years for State Senators and 3 for Territory. Half the Senate is elected every three years. When there’s a Double Dissolution things are different. Here’s a short paper on Double Dissolutions: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/Powers_practice_and_procedure/00_-_Infosheets/Infosheet_18_-_Double_dissolution The important thing right now is that 21 May 2022 is a normal election – there was no Double Dissolution. This means that the States are only voting for six Senators each. At a normal election, we vote for both Houses: the whole of the lower House and just over half the Upper. That’s what happens on 21 May.

Our elections are always on Saturdays (religious Jews have to do early votes) and are declared no fewer than 33 days before the election itself. There is no year-long campaign trail. It’s generally about six weeks.

21 May is the last possible day in this current electoral cycle: our Prime Minister was cutting it very fine. And he had until this coming Thursday to call it and called it on Sunday, so it’s not the shortest formal campaign, but it comes close.

We are now in caretaker mode, and the government can’t do anything new. The big thing this year is that the Prime Minister made a whole heap of appointments before he called the election. This isn’t typical of Australia (though it happens, it normally doesn’t happen on such a scale) – but Morrison is very influenced by the USA.

We have live vote counting from the moment the polls shut (6 pm) on the night of the election.

It’s a great spectator sport. We used to have tally rooms in Canberra and anyone local could just turn up and run into nervous politicians and stand around behind the ‘rooms’ the TV broadcasts used and read the autocues along with the presenters, then turn around and watch the numbers being manually put up on the big boards. That system no longer operates and I miss it, but you can still watch the whole thing on various free-to-air TV stations. On some stations it’s updates only, but on several the broadcast is from 6 pm until midnight or until the formal speeches are over, whichever comes first. Even on a landslide year, things aren’t over until at least 9 pm, because of the time differences between our east and west coast.

Not all Australians take the elections seriously, but enough do that any count dominates TV viewing on that Saturday night. Antony Green is the expert on the national broadcaster, and representatives of the major parties are called in to give commentary. In the right year and watching the right TV station, it’s possible to see the moment the commentators realise that they have lost their own seat.

Let me leave you with one last page from the AEC. This is the information they gave reporters for the last election. It covers some of the areas I didn’t talk about here. Why didn’t I talk about it here? This post is already 2,000 words long and it’s 2 am here and I am going to sleep!  https://www.aec.gov.au/media/files/aec-federal-election-reporting-guide-digital.pdf

Why the Aussie elections are so important this year: an introduction for the unwary

It’s one of those Mondays. I say this with much care and I’m drinking much coffee. Normally I would give you a book post on a Monday, but Australia’s much-awaited (by us, anyhow) election was called yesterday. This is not just any election. It’s our last opportunity to move away from rabid and corrupt politics. It matters. I asked if that meant I should post about it and Nancy Jane Moore said, “Yes, please.”

I’m doing two posts. The first one is on my Monday and the second is will be posted when Monday finally hits the US. One is about our parties, and the other will talk you through our electoral system. All the cool stuff is in this post, and I introduce the parties. I’m not hiding my opinions – you can see where my vote is likely to go if you read carefully.

First, you need to know that, in Australian popular opinion, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, belongs in the same crowd as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. When Trump was US President, the two acted as if they were best friends. Morrison is a fundamentalist Christian of the prosperity theology variety and, until a few weeks ago, was publicly a close friend of Brian Houston, the Hillsong leader who is currently on trial.

Until a few years ago, Australia was on various lists as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Right now we’re not even considered close to achieving such an honour. In the last ten years, international influence and local decisions by the ruling party and their allies have pushed us away from our cultural standard.

How did this happen?

Just one example will explain it. In the last three years we’ve not had a week without a disaster of enormous magnitude. The Federal government put money aside to help and didn’t spend the vast bulk of it. In fact, a few weeks ago, the newspapers told us that the government had earned $800,000 on interest on unspent disaster relief. State governments have taken the brunt of getting people through disasters such as bushfires, floods, and the pandemic. Because they were promised Federal help and only a tiny fraction of the promised help came, we still have people who are living in caravans because they received none of the promised help when the 2019-20 bushfires ripped through territory the size of Syria. Some of these people have been evacuated (or even died) when the floods hit their town this year.

This is unheard of for Australia. We used to be outstanding at getting people through natural disasters with ridiculously low death tolls. We now don’t even have proper Federal policies to handle the natural disasters, and the government keeps cutting back support of the scientists who predict them and all the various bodies who normally find ways of dealing.

That’s just a small part of a complex picture. Australia is moving from being a laid-back country that really tries to do its bit, to a somewhat corrupt oligarchy. We still have our base culture, but I don’t think we can handle three more years of this culture being intentionally ground underfoot.

May 21, as you can see, is an important election. It will decide who we are and whether we care about people, about the land… about anything other than a small group of individuals making much money. The current deputy leader, theoretically representing rural Australians, has said quite clearly that money is more important than anything else. Farmers are one of his chief voting blocs, and he makes it clear he doesn’t care.

How we got this way has an interesting and sad history. It follows the same path as the changes in the US Republicans, and some of the same factors are at play. I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, let me introduce you to who is standing for election. Our parties are not what they look like to non-Australians: their names are, to be honest, not that intuitive.

 

LNP – Liberal National Party, or the Coalition. This is the party currently in power. They are most definitely right wing.

‘Liberal’ in Australia has always referred to the small government (or smaller government) party, but these days it is the party that supports the coal and gas industries and is, to be fair, well-supported by those industries in return. In the sixties and seventies they supported cheap or free education. The free education was brought into play by the Labor party, and is the reason no-one my age ever suffered from university debts. The Liberals kept it when the Labor party was voted out. It was a Liberal leader (Malcolm Fraser) who was in charge when I was an undergraduate, and made sure that I paid no tuition fees. I paid student union fees (less than $100 a year) and for books, and anyone without income got Austudy , which was not quite enough to live on, but Austudy and a part-time job got most students through university with no debt at all. These days students emerge from undergraduate degrees between $20,000 and $100,000 in debt (or even higher) – it’s a choice between education and owning a house, even for most people who come from comfortable backgrounds.

These days the Liberals are, as I said earlier, quite right wing for the most part, despite the name. Even for a right wing party, they are light on addressing climate change, which is why Australia is labelled as bad on climate change – if you poll people’s opinions, dealing with it is important to us. It is not, however, important to our current leaders.

How does the LNP act in Parliament? One of my favourite clips (my least favourite clips make me want to weep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7UCSpZB5Bo

 

Labor – currently the Opposition. Labor started off from the union movement. Unions are still much bigger in Australia than in the US, and considerably more powerful, though less than they used to be. It was, originally, definitely left wing but has drifted towards the right in recent years. Let me be clear, though – right wing in Australia is not the same as the US right.

The spelling of the name is due to one of their early leaders, King O’Malley. He was very important in the days when Australia became independent and he founded a party and… he was American. This is why the name of the party uses US spelling. Canberra (our national capital, where I live) reacts to this naming in its own way. O’Malley was a teetotaller, so a pub was named after him. I have met friends at King O’Malley’s many times and each and every time someone makes a joke about the spelling of Labor.

The party is now centre left (mostly) and centre right (increasingly often). It’s not a left wing party. If someone from the US were describing it, however, they might call it ‘left wing’, because of the same factors that made the old-fashioned Liberals strong on education and social welfare. Education, health, social welfare, and owning a home are four dreams that a large number of Australians agree on. Almost all of us also agree on doing far more to prevent climate change than we currently attempt. State Labor parties have a (mostly) good record on this.

Federally, Labor haven’t been in power since September 2013, so their record on all issues at the federal level is tangled with the strange politics and voting patterns of Opposition. Labor has a history, in Parliament, of not shouting loudly against things they can’t change ie by voting agreement where nothing can be done, and saving the arguments for places they can make a change. They may be not-good on climate change, then, or they may just be biding their time.

Labor has the electoral advantage of everyone’s favourite politician (OK, maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of us). Penny Wong is wildly popular. She refuses to move to the House of Representatives and become leader and every few months people say, “But why???” She’s probably right on not trying for leadership. Most leaders have come from NSW, Victoria or Western Australia and she’s from South Australia. What’s more, the bigoted parts of Australia hate her as much as the rest of Australia loves her: she’s Malaysian Chinese Australian and gay. She is targeted by many, many bigots and the way she handles these people is one of the reasons she is so popular.

She is also popular because of how she handles difficult issues. We watch her for her facial expressions as much as her words and her attitude. When she looks at someone in Senate Estimates and waits a moment before saying something, a clip will be sent around social media, to illustrate a moment where someone not doing their job was forced to explain. Her ethics matter to us. Clips of Wong are always circulated when Senate Estimates (one of our methods for ensuring government accountability) is at work. Let me show you. First, something very everyday (and actually Senate Estimates, where Wong is seeking answers from a minister for things done): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ein2OPaX4GI It’s not the most colourful of the clips, but it shows the everyday work she does and why she’s liked. It also helps that she does things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5pxE4RXpjc

 

Greens – the next largest party (mostly). Until recently they were a bit gentler than the Greens in other countries, but these days they are fixed in their policies and have very strong views. They still get a lot of the left wing vote, but some of us would really like it if they listened and were a bit more adaptable.

Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and other leaders of small right wing parties. We have them in abundance. They get up to 15% of the vote in some states and some elections. They’re a story in and of themselves. They’re important politically, but can also be problematic. The old White Australia is best represented in these parties.

 

Independents: not new at all, but a particular type of independent candidate, based on grass roots decisions in a given electorate, is gaining a bigger voice than previously. These candidates are the main reason this election is impossible to call. Their colour is teal and many of them get backing from groups such as Climate 200 – addressing  climate change is one of the few policies they all totally agree on. Much of this voice belongs to the centre-right and their supporters used to be the core voters of the Liberal Party. This election is going to be one to watch, because if these independents do well, then several ministers are in danger of losing their seats.

The Liberals are so worried about them that two Liberal candidates have shifted the blue of the party in all their advertising to a shade closer to teal and one took his party’s name off some of his corflutes. The Liberals are not just fighting Labor for a majority: an interesting number of them are fighting for previously secure seats. In the 2019 election Zali Steggall (an ex-Olympic skier) defeated the previous prime minister in his own seat. Several of the “Voices of…” (the official term for the new grassroots candidates) are ex-journalists or sportspeople.

In Canberra, I don’t know yet if there are any standing for the lower house (the election was only called yesterday), but there are independents standing for the Senate, and one of them is, indeed an ex-sportsman, David Pocock. He’s not part of the teal people, but he is the leading candidate to challenge our Liberal senator (whose name is Zed, which isn’t nearly as funny in US English as it is in Australian English – for us ‘zed’ is the final letter of the alphabet) and the moment a particular picture of him was circulated, his vote increased enough to make people start to pay attention to him. He now has an audience for his policies, but for such an Australian reason.

This is not a complete introduction, but I’ve run out of time. When I meet a couple of deadlines, I will write you the next post, and you can see why the election is so soon and some of the mechanics behind our system. In some ways it’s very different to the system is the vast majority of democracies. Almost every vote counts here. And we have democracy sausages.

Watch this space.

Apocalypse Now

If you’ve ever wondered what you would do in the apocalypse, look at what you’re doing now.

That’s your answer.

OK, before you either panic or tell me I’m overreacting, let me break some of that down.

First off, while I am using apocalypse in its current casual meaning of a collapse of civilization, I’m not including the various religious interpretations. This isn’t the fundamentalist End Times.

And in truth, I don’t mean the end of the (human) world, because I’ve never believed that was going to happen even at the height of the Cold War when the US and the Soviets were rattling so many missiles at each other.

We’re not going to all be living in caves or in isolated groups with no access to the many things we humans have developed over the years. We’ll even have a lot of the good things left.

But we are already in a period of change and chaos, some of it extreme and much of it causing a great deal of human suffering. It’s going to keep happening. Of course, like everything else in this world, it will not be equally distributed.

So despite the fact that some of that change is going to be catastrophic, you’re still going to have to pay your taxes, get the groceries, and take the cat to the vet, all while trying to dodge the crisis du jour, whether pandemic, disaster, or political.

From the way things look right now, we’re going to continue to have all three of those crises for the foreseeable future. Continue reading “Apocalypse Now”

Politics in Families

Blaine A. White, Creative Commons

Okay, we’re living in a moment when politics are… a fraught subject. I listened the other night as my 25-year-old daughter and my husband–who are not actually on opposite sides of the fence–had a 45-minute conversation fight discussion exchange about something. My daughter has admirable patience when talking with people of opinions that do not march with hers. With  her parents (whose politics are not far from hers at all), well  the word “scolding” comes to mind. But we are her parents, so there’s that.

The fraughtness of politics within families sometimes has less to do with opinions than with family dynamics. This is one reason why I almost never talk politics (or religion) with my brother. He and I are so far apart on the political spectrum that it’s hard to believe we share any DNA at all. Continue reading “Politics in Families”

Narrative and Agenda

I just finished reading Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I recommend highly. The author of the eight Little House books, she wrote about her childhood during the push west by homesteaders and farmers. “I told the truth,” she said. “But not the whole truth.” The books are a “good parts” version of her life, but some important “truths” were omitted, because Wilder (and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was her secret beta reader, line editor, and editorial advisor) took out things that didn’t underscore her narrative. The narrative? That her family (in particular her adored father, Charles Ingalls) survived and flourished through hard work, love, and self-reliance, and that self-reliance, a core virtue of westward expansion, is a uniquely American virtue.

This is a weird time in American history to be reading this book, let me tell you.  The message Wilder was crafting seems to me to have curdled, fueling rage and insurrection. Rose would have loved it. Continue reading “Narrative and Agenda”

Real Life Imitates History

HildI just finished reading two books that made me realize that some people’s ideas about how to exercise power date back to the First Millennium of the Common Era.

One of those books was Maria Dahvana Headley’s wonderful new translation of Beowulf, and the other was Nicola Griffith’s Hild, historical fiction about the life of St. Hilda.

I have read other versions of Beowulf. Hild was a re-read for me. Looking at both of these stories in light of current political crises and my recent reading of Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain  made me hyper aware that the concept of power held by the pathetic excuse for a U.S. president we’re stuck with until January 20, 2021, is similar to that of the kings (or, more accurately, warlords) in 6th Century Scandinavia and 7th Century Britain.

Headley’s Beowulf begins with the word “Bro,” putting a modern edge on the drunken boasting and over-valuing of physical strength and fighting inherent in the epic. That tone, coupled with the constant references to the warriors’ daddies and the repeated line “That was a good king” made me begin to reflect on those kings as warlords with a gang of toughs around them who started wars with others of their ilk.Beowulf

Hild begins with the title character at the age of three, just after her father, a prince, has been murdered to secure someone else’s power. Over the course of the book she becomes the seer and advisor to her uncle, King Edwin, who is striving to rule a larger and larger part of Britain.

In Smail’s book, he speaks of the castellans, who took over castles and hired thugs to defend them in the 11th and 12th Centuries, tormenting the people around them. In Hild we see even the noble women (not to mention the ordinary folks and all those enslaved) doing much of the work to keep the society working ¾ working in the dairy; spinning, weaving, dyeing, and sewing so that people had clothes; healing the sick ¾ while the king and his warriors train for battle or sit around getting drunk.

Beowulf does not show us the common people who make the society work, but the tone of Headley’s translation made me think about them.

So many of our histories are about all the wars, but the true building of our societies is rooted in the work of those who were not out trying to take over a neighboring king. Continue reading “Real Life Imitates History”

Culture and science fiction conventions

I wrote out many thoughts on last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention, but something rather important has come up and I need to talk about it. It’s related to World Fantasy, true, but it’s also related to many other online conventions this year.

People from all over the world dropping in to take tea and chat can be delightful… but can also cause problems. No convention has been entirely without problems and no convention has been entirely without moments when cultures have come together and produced fascinating and useful conversations.

I could cause more problems if I listed the issues each and every convention has had or say nice things about the terrific conversations, but I shan’t do either. Instead, I shall give a small list of quite specific ideas to consider. These are the kinds of discussions that program people have or should have. (I’ve had them when programming. And yes, I made mistakes. The world is a big place and full of exceptional complexities.)

1. How do countries see their own various cultures? We can’t just take our own views and use them as a framework for the description of others. My favourite example of this is that people of Korean ancestry are from the dominant culture in Korea and the opposite in the US: a Korean and a Korean American have completely different experience in terms of prejudice and who society favours.

2. How do minorities see themselves, explain themselves, and why? The example I give on panels is often me, myself and I, for I am not the same Jewish as US Jewish and have some very interesting life experiences to prove it. Ask me about them, and ask me what elements of Australian history pushed me towards my self-description as off-white.

3. In any community, who are the experts on matters of culture? I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on these things and some con-runners know this and ask me to be on panels or for advice. Others… don’t. The variations on ‘don’t’ can be entertaining but often make me feel like an outsider. I have other things to do than spend more of my life as an outsider (I am one anyway, so I don’t need to accept the gift of more outsider status) and move on to other things. We are all different people. Ask around and find out who knows what. (Ask me what my new PhD topic is, I dare you. It includes the words ‘culture’ and ‘genre fiction’. Ask anyone researching what their research is about.)

4. There are procedures and guidelines for working with so many minority cultures in so many countries. My favourites look a bit like this: https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/writing-protocols-for-indigeno-5b4bfc67dd037.pdf This and a set of writing guidelines have been produced by the owners of the culture in order to make it possible for the rest of us to write without appropriation. While not all cultures have documents of this sort, they often have people who can be asked. It would be very useful if possible panellists know about policies and protocols and politics. It would also be useful if they could explain how one works with people of this culture or that. However, none of us know everything. Panellists should all know their limitations. That’s the bottom line. We need to know who we can speak for and who we should defer to on a given subject.

This is not a list of ten. It could be, but those four subjects are immense and enough to be getting on with.

Car, parked.

carOn March 13, I filled the car with gas because we were planning a trip to visit my sweetheart’s mother for her 90th birthday. But the next day we both woke up feeling a little under the weather, so we decided we shouldn’t go.

Four days later, the Bay Area set up a shelter-in-place to slow down the pandemic.

I haven’t put gas in the car since. According to the gauge, there’s about three-quarters of a tank available.

At a rough guess, I’ve driven the car about a hundred miles in the last six and a half months. To put that in perspective, I’ve walked about 850 miles in that same period.

Now it’s not unusual for me to walk more than I drive when I’m not traveling. I live in a very walkable neighborhood. And I’m even driving to run some errands right now; when you buy two weeks worth of groceries at once or are picking up a farm box instead of browsing the booths at the farmer’s market, a car is useful. Continue reading “Car, parked.”