BERLIN NIGHTS

FIRST PUBLISHED BY FARRAGO MAGAZINE: http://farragomagazine.com/2017/02/20/berlin-nights/

We knew the mythology long before we arrived. Different. Cool. Alternative. Long has Berlin prided itself on being the home of subcultures, a place where alternative types can find their niche and wear it proudly. Add in a healthy dose of post-teen hedonism and an infamous clubbing scene, and it sounded like a perfect place to party.

Yet the resounding message from locals was that, for any of the clubs worth going to, we were very unlikely to get inside. “Wear all black or don’t bother”, we were told. “Whatever you do, don’t take your phone out whilst waiting in line”, said another. “Even then you still probably won’t get in. The bouncers are notoriously judgemental.”

If Berlin was meant to be the home of alternative culture, why did the bouncers sound like textbook high school bullies? Isn’t alternative culture meant to react against snooty judgement and oppressive social dynamics, not mimic them? It seemed that rather than subverting the judgemental, hierarchical culture that pervades the worst of ordinary nightlife, Berlin clubs were in fact amplifying it.

Berlin is by no means unique in this regard. Around the world, alternative scenes can be hard to break into. Instead of breaking down dichotomous social structures, hipsters everywhere are frequently guilty of merely replacing one set of self-serving social rules with another. Scenes founded by those excluded from “in groups” have built walls which block out not just those who might ruin the vibe, but those who might enrich it.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not expect to just waltz into any scene, anywhere in the world, and automatically be accepted. Some cultural milieus take time to adapt to, and some you are simply not entitled to join. I would gladly be turned away from a gay club for being heterosexual. I would expect weird looks were I, a thoroughly white guy with dance moves to match, to attend a hip-hop club in Harlem. Cultural scenes are designed by certain groups, for certain groups, and need not bend for the comfort of an Australian tourist.

Yet the arbitrary judgement of Berlin bouncers was seemingly not aimed at preserving culture, or fostering common bonds. It was aimed at manufacturing “cool”. The lurid, visible spectacle of social capital allocation. There is a line between keeping a scene tight, preserving its uniqueness, and using privileged positions in social groups to push others out, to inflate your own sense of worth. If a cultural scene relies on such blatant exclusivism, it has likely become detached from its roots and, dare I say it, pretty lame.

The question worth asking, for those of us who want accepting cultural scenes, is are hipsters the new jocks? Like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, just as the pigs begun walking on two legs and wearing human clothes, have the formerly weird kids merely subsumed the role of the old cool crowd?

We can all be guilty of building walls around the things we love, and this includes social groups and cultures. Often, the scenes we party in demand a form of membership – required attire, assumed knowledge, shared language. These common characteristics help define these groups, and give them a sense of common identity. Yet if they are too rigidly enforced, they risk alienating people who would otherwise thrive in such environments, but just can’t break through the barriers.

*

At first, Berlin had seemed standoffish. Then we met Wolf. An eccentric writer working part-time behind a bar to make ends meet, we traded worldviews and laughs over German pints. Between anxious gesticulations – impassioned, but twitchy – he would pause to ponder our words carefully before earnestly replying. He looked you in the eye when talking, without a shred of confection or affectation. His charisma was magnetic, pulling a diverse crowd to his end of the bar. He was everything the bouncers were not. Soon enough we were all discussing the rise of demagogic populism with two pro-Brexit Brits.

“We’re not racist, we’re sick of being called racist,” said one. “Immigration has nothing to do with it – it’s the system, the system itself is damaged. I’m from Birmingham – working class – and those Oxford twats don’t give a shit about us. Something needed to fuck up the status quo, and it has, and I’m glad.”

I’d never actually spoken to a Leave voter. My liberal-minded friends and I had greeted Brexit with a similar mix of disappointment, disdain, and even patronisation. I haven’t changed my mind about Brexit, and I don’t buy the simple narrative of the working class biting back after years of being overlooked. But hearing their opinions helped me grasp the true extent to which certain groups feel entirely alienated from their fellow citizens, which is being harnessed by demagogues to incite division across our increasingly fractured world.

Wolf broke down Berlin’s walls, and invited us all in. We left his bar intoxicated by the city’s vibe. If only the internet fostered the same jovial, respectful exchanges as Wolf’s corner of that dingy bar.

*

We sipped our craft beer in the Swanson Street rooftop bar. We ate burgers from rustic wooden boards. A bearded DJ in a denim jacket played Chet Faker. We were having a spirited discussion about our favourite Netflix dramas, until someone broke the conviviality by mentioning the US election.

“Is it possible to get special consideration from exams due to post-election grief?” jokes one. “Seriously, the Frankfurt School’s culture industry hypothesis really explains the obscuring of facts through social media in the campaign,” quipped another.

I had the horrible realisation that we were living a stereotype. We were the tertiary educated, liberal-minded “elites” that Donald Trump had so viciously derided in his presidential campaign.

The US election conjured inside me a sinking feeling, that everything I cared about so passionately had be summarily ignored. But no wonder it was. Those inside my bubble had systematically excluded those outside it. Through devising barely penetrable social theories, we were isolating not just those who offended our beliefs, but those who failed to speak our highly-specialised language. Of course, Rick from Michigan doesn’t care about universal human rights, because that discussion is rarely framed in a way that offers any tangible relevance to his life.

We weren’t as obnoxious as Berlin bouncers, but we were breathing life into the limp husk of exclusiveness all the same. We had created our own little club, inaccessible to the uninitiated. Anyone unversed in the language of tertiary-level social sciences just wouldn’t get it. Some might not see this as a problem, for university is by nature an elite institution which invariably leaves some behind. Still, without the faculties to communicate our beliefs to a broad range of people, we “liberal elites” will be left turning people away from a club with increasingly few people inside.

If Berlin taught me anything, it is that exclusiveness sucks. We must be constantly attentive to the accessibility of our social groups, clubs and institutions. We must adjust our behaviour so that those outside our bubble feel welcome to join, even if this means spoiling a particularly rigid image of how it ought to look. We must speak a language that can be understood by all. I’d much rather share a pint with someone who walks in different shoes, than wait for three hours with perfectly curated attire to dance with people who all look the same.

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THE TRIUMPH OF NOSTALGIA

Right before my eyes, I saw my first job, taken by a machine. Visiting a local cinema to see the much-lauded film ‘La La Land’, I was not greeted by a fellow human. I was greeted by a black box with a screen entitled “Ticket Sales”. Only five year ago, I started my working life selling tickets at another local cinema. Were I a nervous teenager entering the workforce today, I would not have been so lucky.

I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia estimates that up to 40% of Australian jobs could be replaced by technology by 2030. With such a grave threat to Australian jobs, it beggars belief that our politicians barely pay it lip service.

It is not only automation our politicians are avoiding talking about, but anything vaguely futuristic. Across the Western world, we are witnessing an enraged backlash against modernity. In the face of a rapidly changing global economy, politicians and their ageing electorates are harking back to a mythical golden age. Nostalgia is now the most valuable political currency, being cynically exploited by political animals of all stripes.

Our public representatives are living in La La Land – a film which traffics in indulgent nostalgia, where fulfilment can be found in the worship of past greats, and where modernity is an annoyance to be escaped from. From Canberra to Hollywood, those responsible for our collective future are looking backwards with rose-tinted glasses.

If one wanted evidence that Australia’s political class are clinging to yesteryear, they need only have observed Scott Morrison brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament. Scott Morrison rallied on behalf of coal miners in Labor electorates, in a blatant emulation of Donald Trump’s appeals to unemployed coal miners in formerly Democratic strongholds. The message was clear – the Coalition will make coal great again.

Trying to reclaim the glory of a once-thriving industry may cynically harvest the votes of those previously employed in the sector, but coal will not power the industries of the future. Victoria’s Hazelwood power station will shut in March, due to the economic unviability of coal production in the green global economy of tomorrow.

The US provides a stark example of where the politics of nostalgia may lead us. Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” excited white voters over the age of 45, for whom yesteryear meant stable employment and unchallenged social status. Trump fared far worse with younger voters and people of colour, who were either born into our modern travails, or for whom yesteryear was not the hallowed golden age Trump pretends it was.

The problem with Trump’s utopic repackaging of the past, like Morrison’s, is that it fits tomorrow’s requirements like a square peg in a round hole. His proposed tariffs on imports to revive US manufacturing will likely raise the cost of living, damage import reliant sectors, and may even trigger a global recession through a trade war with China. Meanwhile, automation will swallow many of the jobs Trump does manage to salvage, whilst unhalted climate change will decimate valuable natural resources and lower our quality of life.

Young people are rarely afforded the comfortable privilege of nostalgia. We have not lived long enough to have the luxury of yearning for a simpler time. We have only the complexities of the present.

It is no surprise that few millennials voted for Trump, and most are dissatisfied with Turnbull’s inert leadership. Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey reveals that less than one in ten young Australians think they will be more financially secure than their parents. A barely penetrable job market, only made worse by rising housing costs, is weighing heavily on our optimism for the future.

We cannot revert back to the past. Cinemas will not rehire ticket salesmen when machines can perform the same task, more efficiently, for less money. The challenge for our leaders is to have the courage to address such emergent economic issues, whilst sparking excitement in a disenchanted electorate.

The apparent attractiveness of the twentieth century is a direct product of the failure of progressive voices to craft an appealing narrative about the future. The latest incarnation of modernity has become too entangled with the political agenda of neoliberalism, which has given us all iPhones but failed to ensure fair distribution of wealth. We can, and must, have both.

To break away from this regressive political quagmire requires our leaders to imagine what a good life will look like in 2030 and beyond, to articulate that vision in an inclusive way and to bring it about through intelligent public policy. Only then will we make our future great again.

DECLINE OF AN EMPIRE: A VIEW FROM AFAR

That the Republican nomination of Donald Trump came in the same year the Democrats pass the baton from the first black President to the first female nominee is no coincidence. That Brexit occurred as the British Labour are led by a committed socialist, and elected the first Muslim Mayor of London should be no surprise. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their counterparts thrive on the loss of traditional entitlements incumbent in a changing world – the boiling frustration when your country, your gender and your race is no longer top of the tree. As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote, “at the very moment when the old counterculture claims its biggest prize yet, the anti-counterculture makes its most vociferous and unhinged protest.”

It is ironic that the hopes of that counterculture now rest with Hillary Clinton, a candidate with a history so chequered as to almost admonish her progressive credentials. Whilst university students heeded Bob Dylan’s call for a change in the times, Hillary was a young Republican campaigning for the unsuccessful Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater – in many ways the forefather of Trumpism in America. She sat on the board of several prominent NGOs which lifted many out of poverty, yet also sat on the board of Wal-Mart where she remained silent on the deunionization of their workforce and consequent exploitation. She attacked the gendered violence of the Taliban and lauded feminism on the world stage, then supported the disastrous Iraq War which compounded the region’s manifold problems. She fought for healthcare, childcare, family violence assistance and the rights of children, then supported the unshackling of Wall Street which decimated the US economy and left formerly middle-class families languishing below the poverty line. Few careers have been so illustrious, yet so replete with contradictions.

Yet, in contrast to her only genuine rival, Hillary should appear saintly. If we are to set aside the equivocation, accommodation, fascination and appropriation of The Donald by the mainstream media, and attempt as much as is possible in our inextricably mediated lives to cast an objective eye upon such an absurd phenomenon, there is no doubt in my mind what we are witnessing – the contemporary incarnation of fascism in America. The mythology Trump has conjured is akin to a theatrical recontextualisation of Mein Kampf. The unapologetic white saviour rises amidst a pervasive national malaise, employing fanfare, divisive rhetoric and an imaginary fading Golden Age which he alone, with his unique bullish commitment, can resurrect.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the ease with which Trump has repurposed left-wing rhetoric, and the failure of progressives to convincingly reclaim their own discursive frame. Trump’s “lying media” diatribes sound like a dumbed-down Noam Chomsky book. His tales of post-industrial decay could be excerpts from union rallies. Trump has applied some Hollywood glitter and a spray tan to increasingly resonant left-wing arguments which, ironically, the Left is yet to promulgate persuasively. Yet, as with many of Trump’s products, scraping away the boastful veneer exposes a void of substance. His policies, largely an afterthought, would further entrench the inequalities he purports to reverse. To address the stagnation of the lower and middle classes, Trump proposes massive tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy. To help Americans afford healthcare, he will take away their government subsidies. To reign in the corrupt system of hoarding elites, he would repeal legislation limiting reckless bank loans and financial scams.

For non-Americans, it is tempting to assume the USA is populated with idiots. How can they not see through this shonky showman? One explanation pervasive in the mainstream media is that Trump supporters are not invariably racist, but are poor workers emasculated by economic globalization who want revenge. Yet, Trump supporters earn approximately $72,000 per year, which is $10,000 more than the average white American household. People who have lost their job, or live in areas affected by manufacturing decline are less likely to vote for Trump than the gainfully employed. Working class people make up only 30% of Trump’s supporters. The only consistently unifying characteristics of Trump supporters are unfavourable views of ethnic minorities and respect for authoritarianism. Attempting to mask Trump supporters’ actual concerns is not “taking them seriously” – it is a rather patronizing projection of the Left’s innermost insecurities about the rising inequality, institutional decay and social fragmentation and disenfranchisement. If you listen to Trump’s supporters, they will tell you their real concerns. They don’t like Muslims and Mexicans. There is no inextricable link between class and racism – they may interrelate, but are ultimately independent variables. Disentangling these variables is a task the Left must tend to, or else be led by the insidious narratives of white nationalism.

It is no surprise, given less than ideal candidates available, that many progressives have turned to third parties. Actress Susan Sarandon, for instance, spoke to the BBC on why she will support the Green Party’s Jill Stein. “I am worried about the wars, I am worried about Syria… I’m worried about fracking,” Sarandon said. “I’m worrying about the environment. No matter who gets in they don’t address these things because money has taken over our system.” On these fronts, whilst Trump is still uniquely horrible, the candidates are undoubtedly too similar for comfort.

Furthermore, many contrarian left-wingers such as Slavoj Zizek and John Pilger have claimed a Trump victory may even be necessary to smash the corrupt systems of US government. Repurposing Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which claims that neoliberals have strategically exploited crises to advance their cause, the narrative goes that Trump will leave behind a smouldering mess, fertile ground for progressives to sow the seeds of a socialist utopia.

Such radical positions are perhaps understandable given the tumult of our times. They are also thoroughly indulgent, and incredibly dangerous. Many claim they simply must vote with their conscience, unlike millions of other Americans who are presumably unprincipled or not sufficiently enlightened to see through the fog of conspiracy. It is emblematic of a contemporary moment so toxically volatile that voting based on a synthesis of one’s beliefs and a rational calculation of the potential effects of one’s vote is so easily conflated with the shameful complicity in a rigged system.

Yet despite the claims of moral purists to “vote with your heart”, there is no such thing as an unpragmatic vote. To vote purely based on the alignment of a candidate’s beliefs with your own, without consideration for the actual effect your vote will have is immoral. Ballot papers are not manifestos of personal beliefs – they are contributions to a brutally numeric, unemotive process which, in this instance, will result in a single candidate leading the most powerful country on earth.

People can vote how they like, but they must be willing to own the consequences. In the US first-past-the-post system, a vote for anyone other than Clinton risks a Trump presidency. For activists like Susan Sarandon, the material consequences would be minimal. Her relatives will not be banned from entering the country. She will be able to pay for healthcare without the government assistance Trump proposes to scrap. She won’t fall below the poverty line when Trump abandons those no longer useful to him. But millions of Americans will, as will hundreds of millions abroad. Those longing to smash the system must consider what might be left in the wake.

If I were American, I would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. I hope his revolution rolls on, and weighs heavily on Hillary’s mind if she does win the election. But it should be self-evident that Clinton will make a better President than Trump. It is perhaps the ultimate case of an unqualified male being elevated to the status of a vastly more qualified female. Her transgressions, whilst by no means beyond criticism, pale in comparison to the abominably bleak future Trump would usher in. A victory for Hillary may be a victory for the political class, but it will also be a great loss for the most potent far-right nationalist movement in modern American history. And as the election already casts a long shadow into the murky future of US politics, that reverberation would be profound indeed.

THE ART OF INNOVATION

The defining term of recent economic debate is “innovation”. Endlessly repeated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it is a bland piece of economic jargon, which vaguely alludes to the creation of wealth through the development and implementation of new ideas. Everyone from Silicon Valley to the CSIRO to annoyingly professional Commerce students are bandying it around.

Underscoring the political class’ excessive use of the term, there is actually a real economic narrative being told. Developed economies used to revolve around manufacturing, but low-skill manufacturing jobs have long since migrated to developing countries or been replaced by machinery and computers. Australia coasted along by digging more and more resources out of the ground, and selling these resources to the countries doing the manufacturing, such as China. However, the price of iron ore, coal and other minerals are currently plummeting. Whist some mineral prices may bounce back, coal, which Australia is particularly dependent upon, clearly does not have a place in future green economies that draw their energy from renewable sources.

So how can we make money in the future? Australia needs to become less dependent on extracting minerals from the earth, and more easily able to extract revenue from the resource between one’s two ears. Since technology is going to render most menial, automatable jobs redundant, humans need to establish our competitive advantage and specialise in what computers can’t do. Firstly, computers can’t program themselves, so people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills will be continue to be highly sought after in the job market. More interestingly for a numerically-illiterate Arts student who dropped maths and science at the end of Year Ten like myself, the other vital skill in the economy of tomorrow will be creativity. A computer cannot determine the aesthetic worth of a graphic design concept, or determine the wittiness of a paragraph of text, or direct an arthouse film for that matter. Creativity is an indispensable ingredient in our economic recipe, which we must maximise to drive economic growth.

So you would think that Malcolm would be singing the praises of creative people, and investing heavily in the arts and cultural sectors, right? Sadly, you would be mistaken. On 13th May, funding cuts to the arts and creative sectors were handed down which can only be described as callously savage. Fifty-three small to medium sized arts organisations had their next four-year funding application rejected. Government grants to individual artists and projects have also fallen 70% since 2013-14. Overall, 128 companies now have to share $28 million per year. Once you do the math, it is a rather small financial pie, cut into extraordinarily small slices. All of this emanates from Abbott government funding cuts to the Australia Council, the independent body which determines which artists are worthy of government funding. With an ever-decreasing budget, the process of acquiring a grant from the Australia Council is becoming increasingly difficult.

One organisation to have its funding application rejected was Express Media, the publisher of magazine Voiceworks. Voiceworks is a literary magazine that publishes work by writers under twenty-five years old, providing an important platform for young writers who otherwise struggle to make their first steps in a volatile industry. Also on the chopping block was Meanjin, a literary journal published since 1940 which has fostered a “who’s who” of great Australian writers – Patrick White, David Malouf, Peter Carey and Clive James to name a few. These publications do not only enrich Australia’s cultural landscape, they provide a vital leg-up for future writers and creative people.

Back when Malcolm was new and shiny, a jubilant visionary not yet emasculated by the constraints of the modern political melee and the omnipotent spectre of his conservative colleagues, the creative sector had cause for optimism. Turnbull is an art collector and benefactor himself, famously owning work by controversial photographer Bill Henson. If innovation was the new slogan, then surely they had much to gain. Innovating or, in plainer terms, creating stuff is kinda exactly what creatives do. Arguably, the most innovative act of all is to create something extraordinary out of very few resources – perhaps some paint and brushes, a script or a stage.

Yet, despite embodying the very definition of innovation, the arts and creative sectors are rarely considered innovative. In an era where the predilections of conservative commentators have become pervasive, it has become a widespread belief that creativity is not a serious pursuit. High school students are told to drop their creative subjects if they hope to attain a high ATAR score. Maths = good, drama = bad, OK? The creative industries are associated with indulgence, decadence and unproductivity, whilst areas such as finance, mining and business are associated with thrift, prudence and responsibility.

It is a testament to the absolute hypocrisy of conservative political ideology that the arts sector does not rate a mention in their economic discourse, yet they sing the praises of outdated industries like coal mining. The “free market” view of the economy which conservatives purport to uphold posits that industries should be independent and not reliant on cash from the government. Yet, the amount of government subsidies received by the mining industry make arts funding look like loose change. The Australia Institute estimates that the fossil fuel industry alone accrues over $10 billion in government subsidies each year – conversely, the federal government will spend just $28 million on theatre, visual art and dance.

Or, in another puzzling comparison, the federal government is spending $600 million on commemorating the ANZAC centenary. Of course, fallen soldiers deserve our upmost respect and deserve to be duly commemorated. But as Guardian columnist Paul Daley notes, “The Australian war dead… are already appropriately memorialised. What a difference that money could make to the living.”

Whilst politicians like Turnbull may paint eloquent verbal pictures of their economic vision, using terms like innovation, free markets and the ironic “jobs and growth”, the proof is always in the pudding. It matters little what politicians say – what they actually do is far more important, especially if the former does not match the latter. With increasingly limited funds to work with, how governments choose to spend money gives us a window into their worldview and shows us what they deem important. Turnbull might say he likes public transport, trees and artwork, but he is funding coal mines, detention centres and corporate tax cuts.

In fact, the only thing truly innovative about Malcolm Turnbull is his use of the term “innovation”. He has quite creatively stripped the word of all of its meaning, casting aside the part which refers to creativity and rebranding it as “basically the same old shit with more smartphone apps.” Thankfully, Labor has committed to restore funding to the Arts Council and other initiatives totalling $138.5 million, whilst the Greens have proposed a $270 million package. But if we are to fulfil our creative potential in this country, we will need more than increased funding. We need to change long held cultural assumptions that creativity and economic viability are mutually exclusive. There is nothing innovative about telling a Year Eleven student to drop Studio Arts and pick up Business Management. There is no economic advantage in suppressing creativity.

LAMENTING THE LOST ART OF THE PROTEST SONG

FIRST PUBLISHED BY FARRAGO MAGAZINE: www.farragomagazine.com/2016/05/16/lamenting-the-lost-art-of-the-protest-song

I generally can’t stand previous generations telling me, “They don’t make music like they used to”. Of course they don’t, times have changed. Paul McCartney is old enough to be Rihanna’s dad. The music industry has always produced a lot of trash but there are still shining examples of musical innovation and integrity across the modern industry. However, I can’t help but agree with such nostalgic critics on one point – my generation has buried the protest song. The rise of Bernie Sanders, the upsurge in youthful progressive energy and the mammoth issues facing our planet are calling out for a soundtrack, yet most of today’s musicians are leaving an awkward silence.

The most prominent craftsman of the protest song, Bob Dylan, provided his generation’s soundtrack with ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. “Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call,” he sung. ‘The call’ was a groundswell of youthful, progressive energy for peace, fairness and progress, a call which won battles from civil rights to the Vietnam War. Through Dylan’s nasal twang, a revolution was born and taken up by millions of young people.

Giving Dylan’s classic an overdue re-listen, it pains me to realise that ‘the call’ not only remains unheeded by the establishment but is largely unsung in modern pop culture. The stale and gridlocked state of politics across the modern Western world suggests the winds of change must once again “shake the windows and rattle the walls” of the establishment.  Yet most of the world’s influential musicians, who have a huge platform to advocate progressive change are shying away from the big issues facing our world.

Against a socio-political backdrop ripe for inspiration, musicians seem to have forgotten about politics. In fact, it seems rather unfashionable to champion political causes through music, with the recording industry suffering from a pervasive lethargy, even dismissiveness, toward the world’s most pressing issues. Where Dylan looked outward and directly challenged the Senators and Congressmen he saw to be reticent to progressive reform, today’s music idols seem unresisting, even comfortable, with the status quo.

Even the hippest fringes of pop culture, who pride themselves on being progressive and ahead of the pack, promote introspection over social commentary. Most indie music delineates itself from ‘mainstream’ music through adventurous stylistic, musical and production choices rather than the song’s lyrical message. In fact, the lyrics of songs played on Triple J and on Fox FM are often startlingly similar. The hipsters might be vegan, humanitarian social democrats in real life but the only thing you could deduce from their music is that they have a lot of feelings. It’s no longer cool to care.

Nothing exemplifies this disappointing trend like Triple J’s Hottest 100 in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Chet Faker or The Rubens (I’ve seen the latter in concert three times). They’re great at what they do and not all music needs to make social commentary. I just struggle to name songs in the Hottest 100 that make any disruptive or controversial statements about the world.

As musicologist Tim Byron recently wrote for Junkee, “The kids listening to Triple J these days generally prefer chill music to chill to, rather than angry music to rage against the machine to. Which is to say that there’s little in the average song by Chet Faker or The Rubens that demonstrates any particular frustration with the status quo of mainstream society”.

Recent Australian releases are starting to challenge this trend, however, providing hope for more musical responses to the trials of our torrid times. Firstly, let us look to Missy Higgins’ ‘Oh Canada’, a touching tribute to Alan Kurdi, the drowned boy whose photo drew the world’s attention to the plight of Syrian refugees.

Higgins’ lyrics are mostly a tender narrative of the Kurdi family’s perilous journey, with achingly painful simplicity reflecting the innocence and vulnerability of people fleeing their homeland.

While Higgins’ approach is not directly confrontational like Dylan’s, simply penning a song about asylum seekers in Australia is an inherently dissident act and Missy is not afraid to ridicule the double-speak and platitudes of the political class. “There’s a million ways to justify your fear. There’s a million ways to measure out your words,” she sings audaciously. “But the body of Alan being laid upon the sand, tell me how do you live with that?”

In a less reverent but even more incisive protest song, comedy singer Tim Minchin skewered embattled senior Catholic George Pell in ‘Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’. In typical Minchin style, darkly sarcastic lyrics are layered over a bright and bouncy piano pop tune. Minchin lashes the Cardinal, who has been accused of ignoring and covering up child abuse committed by paedophile priests in the Catholic Church, calling him a “pompous buffoon”, “a goddamn coward” and “scum.”

Needless to say, the song provoked a strong backlash from the defamed Cardinal, the Church and religious apologists everywhere. However, is that not the point? Ruffling the feathers of a conservative, secretive institution that has shown callous disregard for abused children is a feat which few non-comedic pop songs can even aspire to.

Another Australian artist going against the mainstream with a distinct political influence is Courtney Barnett. While her songs are rarely concerned solely with politics, she weaves political concerns throughout her honest depictions of suburban Melburnian life. Bemoaning the degradation of Australia’s environment in ‘Kim’s Caravan’, Barnett spitefully snarls, “The Great Barrier Reef, it ain’t so great anymore. It’s been raped beyond belief, the dredgers treat it like a whore”. Even the quirky ‘Depreston’, a tale of house hunting in lower socio-economic suburbs, sits jarringly against the currently overblown housing market, which is leaving young couples trapped in the rental cycle with little prospect of competing against speculators negatively gearing their seventh house.

Barnett adds another important layer to political discourse – contradiction. Much new-age ‘identity’ politics tends to focus not on governments or institutions but on individual actions, taking formal politics as a lost cause and seeking to effect micro-level change. The question is not often “Why is the exploitation of workers’ rights tolerated?” but “Why don’t you buy ethical coffee?” Yet, despite the supposedly puritanical virtue of some particularly self-assured hipsters, living ethically in a society plagued with manifold issues is hard work.

Barnett’s ‘Dead Fox’ skewers these contradictions, singing, “Never having too much money, I buy the cheap stuff at the supermarket but it’s all pumped up with shit.” The line, sung with Barnett’s signature laid-back lethargy, depicts the modern consumer’s disenfranchisement and apathy when choosing between the affordable and the healthy/ethical. For a cash-strapped young Melburnian like Barnett, being an ethical consumer and paying exorbitant prices for rent are two irreconcilable demands. Reflecting on the staggering scale of big business through an anecdote about a delivery truck, Barnett ponders the inability of individuals to affect meaningful change in a world so large and so fucked.

Perhaps things are finally starting to change. Beyoncé recently used a provocative video clip to push for greater awareness of racial divisions in the US. Kendrick Lamar did the same with his performance at the Grammy Awards. Kanye is running for President. Okay, I know that last one doesn’t really count but still… Even Nickelback is endorsing Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Presidential candidate, which may of course be more of a hindrance to his campaign than a helping hand.

Despite this, it just seems that such political statements from musicians are too few and far between. With such an influential megaphone and so many pertinent issues to champion, it is high time that more musicians stepped up. Yes, your girlfriend may have left you and taken your favourite sweater with her. You might have to do another Savers run. But there is a big wide world out there and a severe dearth of musicians critiquing it. A new generation of artists need to heed ‘the call’ and proclaim it loudly.

A SWITCHED ON PM COULD WOO YOUNG LABOR VOTERS

Memo to the ALP: beware the wrath of disgruntled youth. Faced with a resurgent Coalition under the newly elected Malcolm Turnbull, the ALP must win over young voters, or perish at the next election.

Not since Kevin Rudd’s vain efforts at selfie-taking has the ALP even superficially considered the importance of engagement with young people. But faced with Malcolm Turnbull, a social-media aficionado brimming with charisma and “cool new-age dad” appeal, the ALP must win the Twitter war and inspire the young progressives who swept them to victory in the Kevin 07 campaign.

Read the full article at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/alp-must-move-with-the-times-to-earn-the-youth-vote-20150917-gjoqk2.html#ixzz3uqshZswA

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

 

THE CULTURE WAR THAT DWARFS ABBOTT & CO

RE-BLOGGED ON THE AUSTRALIAN INDEPENDENT MEDIA NETWORK: http://theaimn.com/the-culture-war-that-dwarfs-abbott-co/

Whilst MPs were banned from attending Q&A, gay marriage was called “decadent” and the price of divorce drastically increased, a far more significant story was buried beneath the news heap. Whilst Australia’s conservatives enacted their culture wars in increasingly petty ways, a far more significant global culture war was illuminated.

On July 3rd, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” The resolution was backed by 29 states, including Russia, China and many Islamic countries. America, Britain, France, Germany and 10 other states voted against, on the grounds that it put too much emphasis on traditional family structures.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with traditional families, however in the sensitive world of diplomatic rhetoric, this was less an embrace of families than a slap in the face to supporters of same-sex marriage and other non-traditional family types. South Africa unsuccessfully tried to insert language that took account of same-sex marriage, and the efforts of Western delegates to acknowledge that family structures can sometimes be oppressive also failed.

This latest clash can be seen as evident of a global culture war, one a lot more serious than a stoush between News Corp and the ABC. Defence of the traditional family and opposition to gay rights have been part of Russia’s foreign policy since 2012, whereas Hillary Clinton has shifted US policy to advocate for sexual freedom since 2011. The Economist, one of the few media outlets to cover the resolution, stated that the resolution reflected “a broadening diplomatic showdown between a Western liberal bloc and an anti-liberal coalition.”

The showdown raises concerns for progressives, many of whom have advocated for pacifist foreign policy and have avoided ideological clashes with other communities, particularly Muslims. For mine, the idea of multiculturalism and pluralism must not preclude the West from taking a strong stance on sexual freedom, and speaking out on issues of civil liberty does not amount to a “clash of civilizations” whereby the commonality between the West and other cultures is lost in an all-out cultural war. As Clinton has demonstrated on issues of religious freedom, diplomatic compromise can be reached, but for this to occur the US must relish the current liberal consensus headed by the Obama administration and advocate for progressive values on the world stage.

For social conservatives however, the news is pretty grim. In terms of actual progress, the liberal side clearly has the momentum, with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in many countries being heralded as a monumental victory by progressives internationally.

The worldview of conservatives, which centres on the traditional family unit, is collapsing. With each passing victory for gay marriage advocates across the world, their religious values lose their prevalence. Once advocates of freedom of the individual, liberalism has galloped ahead of them whilst they stand shaking their fists at the sky. Furthermore, they contradict themselves when the logic of freedom which they employ to justify the economic status quo somehow doesn’t apply to inconvenient social issues.

Fear creates strange bedfellows, and as The Economist noted, the anti-liberal side “has allies within the Western world as well as outside it,” as evident by the positive reception of the resolution by conservative think-tanks. So in other words, Western conservatives are now siding with Putin, the Chinese and many Islamic countries on social policy, which would have dismayed many conservative heroes from yesteryear.

Australia is not immune from this global tussle, with The Australian reporting that Julie Bishop refused to co-sponsor the resolution because it did not recognize same-sex couples and because “human rights belong to individuals, not groups.” This hints at a far broader disjunct between the West and the Russia/China alliance, with the West promoting a focus on individual rights whilst the East tries to make sure human rights don’t get in the way of traditional values and state sovereignty. And with many in her Cabinet more likely to support the latter than the former, particularly with regard to gay marriage, Bishop has daringly edged closer to Malcolm Turnbull – perhaps a true liberal amongst conservatives.

Considering the gravity of this global culture war, our local struggle between the Coalition/News Corp and the so-called “lefty lynch mob” is dwarfed in importance. However this is no reason to dismiss our local arm-wrestle. The same dynamic of the culture war operates at a domestic level as it does globally, with those who advocate fairness and inclusivity being regarded with fear and suspicion by those desperately clinging to the past. The Russian MP who recently expressed the fear that the US may try to impose same-sex marriage globally by force has a similar mindset to Cori Bernardi when he fears that it may snow-ball into bestiality – equally impossible, arising from an ingrained mistrust of social progress.

That is not to say there are clear goodies and baddies in such scenarios, as both sides are frequently vindictive and hateful. Such is the nature of culture war, a battle fought over identity which is so personal it is bound to get ugly. There is nothing constructive about culture war, with each side snidely jeering at the other and patting themselves on the back.

However, it will pay progressives to consider that Abbott and his ilk are not simply a home-grown nuisance, but part of a vast global community which encompasses all races and creeds. When the issues are so gravely important as the legal recognition of human diversity and love, the left has to fiercely advocate for social progress. But we must refrain from mimicking the cultural jibes of “lefty lynch mob” and engage in a meaningful debate with those we oppose, no matter how frustrating. For whilst progressives may have one many recent battles, we have not yet won the war.