politics

Australian Federal Election

The Australian Government has announced an early Federal election for the 2nd July 2016. I know, I know. It’s easy to fall back on the belief that it’s a crummy system, the two major parties can appear almost identical in their seeming incompetence, and we have had so many Prime Ministers in the last few years that it’s getting difficult to keep up (Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull… did I miss anyone?). So I get it, presented with those options it doesn’t seem awfully appealing to vote. However, in Australia we don’t get a choice, as such. Voting is mandatory for most Australian adults so if you’re over 18 years old this is an appeal to check if your enrolment details are correct.

As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, my uni studies were in were in the fields of sociology, journalism and political science. For reasons that are still unfathomable to me, my extended family have largely interpreted that to mean that I’m a qualified as a social worker and / or psychologist. Firstly, I can’t think of worse torture than to have to deal with other people’s problems – I have more than enough of my own. Secondly, they are vastly different sets of qualifications. There is some overlap (people I knew studying social work when I did my sociology degree often had to take sociology units for their course, but the reverse was not true). But it seems to fall on deaf ears when I try to explain that the reason I talk a lot about politics, society, culture and social issues is because it’s very hard to not do that after taking two university degrees in those fields.

The point being that learning about politics personally made me realise that while it is unreasonable to ever expect an election or government to result in a utopian society, it is extremely valuable for the people to let their voice be collectively heard. When we consider that people in other parts of the world and through history have risked their lives for the freedom to elect their government, we in Australia are really in a privileged place. We have a collective voice that others could only dream of. Choose the lesser evil, if that’s how you need to frame voting for yourself. Even better, actually reflect on the policies of a few different parties to see which ones best align with your own reflexively examined value system. Cynicism and despair are understandable, but surely that just shows how important it is that you contribute? What if everyone who’s despairing could be, I don’t know, a potential Labor voter, say because you’re feeling frustrated at attempts to remove weekend rates from your wages? It could change the ultimate outcome of the election.

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Image Source: Australian Electoral Commission Facebook
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On Star Wars, meme-based worldviews and critical thinking: A holiday rant from your friendly neighbourhood geek. Or, a thinly veiled ode to Kylo Ren. Contains spoilers.

A friendly reminder to readers: I write in Australian English. Hence the spelling. I will use “s” more often than “z,” and we pronounce that letter “zed.”

First up, I’m going to talk about Star Wars. In light of the new film (which is freaking amazing, if you ask me, and even if you don’t ask, I’m going to tell you), I wanted to write something about the impact of Star Wars on my own life. Then I’m going to connect it to some recent anti-Star Wars negativity I’ve encountered and how my personal working theory on this is that it’s representative of a deeper problem: the way that we use social media and memes to develop and inform our worldviews. I’m calling it “worldview by meme.” I don’t know if anyone else has coined that term or developed it as a fully-fleshed theory. I am using it as a shorthand reference to a set of ideas I am pondering based on the social media behaviours of acquaintances and total strangers alike. I have not done extensive research on it, as yet, but if time allows, I may try to develop the idea in the future.

 

The Force Awakens

Let’s talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for a moment. There are plot spoilers in this so if you’re a fan, and you haven’t yet seen the film, do yourself a favour and go into it with no preconceptions about who or where or what it will entail. If, like me, you’re one of those who devoured and more-or-less memorised the Expanded Universe Canon, I can say that while in a sense I “grieve” the alterations and dramatic changes that have taken place, I am so enamoured with the new story arcs that all is forgiven. Like so many fandoms that have gone before (I’m thinking of Batman and the Marvel Universe, for example), I am choosing to take the option of allowing the disparate universes to co-exist as alternate possibilities.

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NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 17

Friday, 27 November 2015

It’s time to panic! I’m learning to associate my US-based friends’ social media posts about Thanksgiving (both for and against the occasion) with end-of-nano panic. We don’t have a Thanksgiving. I guess our similar holiday is Australia Day in January, which usually marks the end of the summer holidays, and sparks debate about the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous Australians by English invaders, versus calls to just shut up and enjoy walking around in Southern Cross-emblazoned paraphernalia. Though there were attempts by Christian political lobby groups in Australia to start a day of national thanksgiving and prayer. I’m not sure if that ever really gained much traction outside of evangelical circles.

I entered my story text so far into the word count validator and lost 578 words from my story. There’s a huge discrepancy between the word count statistics in Microsoft Word on my lap top, Scrivener on my PC, and NaNoWriMo’s official counter. As my winning or losing is determined by the Nano website’s official counter, I have to re-calibrate my Scrivener aims according to my best guess of Nano’s difference. (Nano usually seems to subtract roughly 70 words from my scrivener account.)

I have today and Monday left available to me to write. Saturday and Sunday this weekend are going to be so busy that I will likely not have any time. People keep saying, “Surely you’ll find time on the weekend, if you’re motivated enough.” Those people clearly aren’t stay-at-home mothers morphing into hair and makeup artists for their daughter’s two ballet concerts over two days and a separate full dress rehearsal in a suburb about half an hour away. At literally exactly the same time my son has a bunch of commitments – namely a birthday party and a church end-of-year celebration for the department in which he volunteers – so that I have the interesting dilemma of needing to be in two physically disparate locations at exactly the same time. If I were the main character in my NaNoWriMo story I may have that ability. But for now my real life is looking a lot like that logic puzzle where the boatman has to carry a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river without leaving them alone in a predator/prey situation.

It’s hard to focus on my story. I’ve had so many social interactions over the last two weeks that my introvert levels of exhaustion are very high. I love catching up with friends. I had no time to write yesterday, either, as I was out for a coffee (which was positive, so don’t get me wrong there, I appreciate friends who drag me out once in a while to talk about the deep stuff of life). At the same time I realise that because so many of us are asking really hard questions about life, faith, our collective dissatisfaction with controlling religious leaders in our lives, and fears of some that if they don’t get out soon they might one day find that they’d given their life, money and allegiance to a cult. Who knows? These are important questions and I think everyone needs to face them at some point in their faith journeys, but my impulse now is to start dialoguing on spiritual abuse forums to learn the warning signs from those who’ve already been there, when what I really, really need to do is to write almost 10,000 words within the next eight hours, get Nano done, so I can recover, and maybe even have some time to start confronting that most Wonderful Stressful Time of the Year, Christmas.

I have come down with yet another severe cold, which includes a really painful headache. My head is pounding as I type and my sinuses are beyond blocked. If I keep clenching my teeth I’m going to have to put in my mouthguard. The coffee grinder broke so I’m now reduced to using a mechanical hand grinder that makes me feel like I’m playing hurdy gurdy (which is okay, I guess, because I just imagine that I am like Anna Murphy the singer and hurdy gurdist in this song… Why yes, she is singing in Ancient Gaulish).

My story is at that disjointed stage where I’m just throwing in any scenes I can imagine. I’m not even bothering to connect them. I can do that later if I need to pad out the story. I look forward to getting this first draft completed so I can excise all its crumminess and get to the good stuff. A lot of people have requested to read my story and I massively appreciate the enthusiasm, but the reality is that I’m writing this first draft for me and my eyes alone. I don’t have the cognitive freedom to write it as creatively as I need if I’m spending the whole time worried that someone else might read it and see how terrible it is – it is in no way representative of the best of my writing. However, on a second draft edit it might manage to make the grade where I’ll look at possibly providing copies to my in-real-life friends (the ones that are sympathetic enough to understand that I’m really just developing my writing craft and that I don’t have the luxury of editors).

I’m looking forward to finishing Nano, and getting back into painting and drawing. December is always a hectic time of year. I can’t believe it’s almost upon us, and that my kids are finishing their first year at new schools (last Nano season I wrote a bit about why we left their previous school and home schooled during 2014, see here). Changing them to nonreligious schools has proven a fantastic choice for them and I’m just so glad that it’s mostly gone well for them. There were lots of hiccups along the way and new social dynamics to negotiate, but I can say with a lot of relief that neither of them has been bullied or beaten-up. Nor have the warnings of their previous school’s principal proven correct in any sense when he said, when we left, that non-Christian, government-based schooling was a factory of atheism that would force our children to give up on their faith. On the contrary, my kids have grown more confident in the knowledge that they choose to self-identify as Christians, while learning that their classmates come from myriad religious belief systems to which they are devoted at varying degrees of intensity (my kids now count Muslims, Sikh, Mormons, Catholics, Agnostics and Atheists from a huge range of ethnic backgrounds among their schoolmates). I realise just how more reflective it is of real social life in Australia. It’s so multicultural here in Melbourne that you either learn how to navigate the varied landscape of religious and philosophical worldviews – or put up the blinkers and pretend that everyone who isn’t exactly like yourself is “bad.” I love that just by changing schools the kids have been able to learn that “others” are more like us than they are different, and that differences aren’t bad, they’re what makes life interesting.

Anyway, enough progressive proselytising, it’s time to go back to my story… which, like my previous paragraph, seems to be morphing into a bit of a commentary on how we marginalise people because of external differences. In my story the bird-people were historically being jerks to the lizard-people but now the bird-people are starting to confront their deeply-embedded prejudices and realise that all the peoples must unite if there’s ever to be a restored pathway to travel between the inhabitable planets in their solar system… how my story went in that direction I’m really not sure. It’s going way off the original plot plans, that’s for sure.

Current word count: 41,144 / 50,000 words

Today’s writing soundtrack: a compilation of Native American shamanic music. I’m not sure I even like it. I’m also not sure how it ended up on my youtube suggestions, but there it is. I might switch to Gregorian chants soon. The birds singing out in the garden blend seamlessly into the music.

NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 3

Thursday, 5 November 2015

It’s not a morality tale, I remind myself as I sip my long black coffee and tap out some new dialogue. I don’t want to write some thin, barely-disguised thesis on the merits of social order or religious structures, nor do I want to write a manifesto on rejecting the ruling polis through sheer hard work and dogged individual agency within a hostile system governed by two-dimensional bourgeoisie. I want to write a story that’s just that, a story – a series of events that occur to a group of connected individuals, and the exploration of the meaning they derive from these events. Even if they will respond and react differently to me, the author, if I were in the same setting.

Even though I’m writing about topics that interest me, topics like religion, politics, social power and control, these are not the central issues of my story. Under all that I want characters with their own interests and motivations that might sometimes align with the interests of socially constructed powers, and sometimes might not. The individuals in the story have varying levels of autonomy and agency that they can express within their social system.

For many years I was strongly encouraged (if not forced) only to read Christian books by Christian authors from the approved Christian bookstores. Strongly encouraged in the sense that I was often told, “read this, you’ll love it,” in a tone that suggested that I’d better love it or else. Forced in the sense that as a stay at home married parent and part-time university student with no personal income, I was never in a position to buy books for myself. When the religious powers that be threaten serious spiritual and membership consequences if they don’t get their tithes and offerings and gift offerings and building fund offerings and missions giving and Christian school fees from the struggling single income family who can barely afford to put food on the table, luxuries like books are few and far between. To get to the library meant driving, too, as the nearest library was well beyond walking distance for a mum with a toddler and baby in tow; and as we had only one car that the husband used to get to his job an hour away in the city, opportunities to visit the public library were rare. In fact, the only bookstore within walking distance was the one owned by my then-church. At the risk of this sounding like a petty first world problem well, maybe it is – but literacy and access to information and knowledge and ideas is surely something all people need. Books not war and all that. Books are more than just an escape or a diversion, they’re a means of growth. I often think that if I had spent as much time on real books as I did on facebook in the last decade, I’d probably be a lot wiser. And definitely a lot happier.

I think of the lyrics from the Rage Against the Machine songBulls on Parade,” that said,

“Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an moving
They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells…”

Of course, I’m not going to get all my politics from song lyrics – though I can probably point the finger squarely at Rage Against the Machine and blame them for setting the foundations that led me to quit studying Education and Journalism, where I would’ve at least been employable, to Sociology, an education of the mind at the intersection of politics and history and philosophy… and no career money in it whatsoever. (I joke, I joke…) But I agree with their notion that a place without books is a “mind cemetery.”

As for having no access to “secular” books and all their supposedly evil ideas from roughly the time of my conversion in 2002 through until I finally went back to university, it’s hard to explain to observers who thought I was just intensely enthusiastic about my faith that deep down I was hurting for the loss of my books. I mean, I was genuinely enthusiastic, but I also wasn’t allowed to be anything other than wildly enthusiastic. To be any less than excited about Jesus was to be lukewarm, and at risk of being spit out by God Himself. It says it right there in black-and-white, Revelation 3:16, which I note is a whole lot more scary than John 3:16’s reference to God’s love for the whole world. The observers – both family and friends – may not have realised the extent to which I was controlled within that system by a handful of laypeople who had significant influence over my husband and I: me as a vulnerable and newly enthusiastic Christian and him as someone thoroughly raised and indoctrinated in that system (my prior twenty years of involvement in the Catholic church as regular mass attender and church volunteer were off-handedly dismissed by them, of course, as though it were entirely irrelevant).

This control spread over every aspect of my life. I was made to throw out my “secular” books, my university materials pertaining to feminism (of course, as I did a degree in feminism that meant most of it), my “immodest” clothes, and my “satanic” music collection. I had to dress in a way more befitting a mother: my jewellery was gone, my earrings, my make up, and there was talk that I ought to cut off my long hair (it’s too vain and impractical). I drew the line at that one.

Eventually I fought back against this drive to strip me of my personality and my autonomy in Jesus’s name, but by then many of my favourite books and nearly my entire music collection was gone. When my life and interests were withheld by the small group of people who controlled my access to, and use of, money, I gave up. I gave up on writing, on playing music (I used to play multiple instruments), I gave up on drawing, too, because my drawings were not adequately spiritual for these individuals. Drawings of Unicorns don’t resonate with the spiritually minded (though in the past they were sometimes used as a symbol of the purity of Christ). I lost most of my friends as I went from a vaguely interesting, introverted yet quietly sociable, intellectual, widely-read, open minded and creative person to a robot void of all personality. “Less of me and more of Jesus,” as we were told, as if that were somehow a core tenet of Biblical faith. Sometimes I wonder how I could’ve so easily complied, but the heady combination of severe-yet-undiagnosed mental illness, my enthusiasm for the discovery of a newfound love for Jesus, and my desire to be accepted into the community of fellow believers, not to mention being a newlywed and trying to negotiate the complexities of a new relationship and fit in with the husband’s intensely-Christian friends and family – well, basically, I ceased to exist.

There is a point to this. I guess in some ways the books I was allowed to read in those days are representative of that whole era of my life. Now I really did enjoy discovering the Christian book world and I haven’t thrown it out completely, though the authors and books I choose to read today have changed. My enthusiasm was genuine and my feelings towards church were very real. I read different styles of Christian spirituality books. Ten years ago I was buying up on writers like Frank Peretti, whose Pentecostal novels really are quite good, as long as you exercise reasonable caution and don’t reconstruct your entire theology on his intriguing fictional ideas; and charismatic/Pentecostal (not certain of his denominational affiliation) writer John Bevere, hoping that his writings would help me escape eternal conscious torment in everlasting Hellfire. In contrast, last month I voluntarily swung by the Christian book store to buy the Anglican Bishop NT (Tom) Wright’s book Surprised by Hope as a gift, and a collection of writings by the 12th century Catholic mystic, philosopher and composer abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The books I read ten years ago have virtually nothing in common with the books I read today, except for a common lexicon of specific terms like “Jesus” and “prayer,” but even then what they mean by this sometimes seems worlds apart. The books I read today breathe life instead of fear into me. Though the books I was reading upheld the framework of a very specific variant of non-denominational Pentecostalism in which I found myself, it was likewise books that led the way out again. When I finally did start going to the library again, three wonderful books let the light shine in through the ontological cracks: The Inner Experience, a posthumously published text by Thomas Merton; The Dark Night of the Soul; and the writings of 14th Century English mystic and anchorite nun Julian of Norwich.

It was the morality tale novels I read back then – when my reading content was being scrutinised and policed by my self-appointed “superiors” within the church community – that have really turned me off the notion of a morality tale. While I read many of these stories, and there were some real gems of stories published by Christian writers, so don’t think I’m throwing them all out; there were some that really began to grate on me. Novels written as blatantly obvious Gospel allegories, for example, without the nuance and magic of CS Lewis’s Narnia. Or stories where the heroine is unwaveringly pure, wholeheartedly non-sexual (not even in a fleeting thought) and whose intention to marry is entirely about selflessly fulfilling the mandate that it is not good for man to be alone, and who somehow sails through the evil worldly world with its myriad conspiracies against Jesus without once having a bad thought… basically, a cardboard cut out of a human who moves through a comically evil society that looks like a set of stereotypes of left wing political beliefs. Or stories that uncritically romanticise certain Christian sects, as representative of some imagined “good old days.” Or stories that draw heavily from specific culture-and-time-bound theological practices and present them in such a way that they’re accepted as truthful representations of Christian eschatology (but I need not name names on this one).

Of course, I have nothing against stories with ethical concepts and philosophical ideas woven through the narrative. For example, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky left me a changed person: that novel, somehow, communicated to me a love for a faith fully expressed in love and peace. The character Alyosha, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, had this enduring faith that navigated the chaos of his family’s very imperfect lives and left me wanting to know more of the God that inspired him to live a spiritually richer life than the one given to them by their deadbeat father. Yet it seemed to me that he treated his brothers with incredible patience and kindness, despite their diametrically opposed philosophies. In this story, while there were morals, of a sort, the depth of the characters’ personalities, the strength of their emotions, the complicated results of their actions, the pain they suffered and the occasional joys they experienced despite their sorrows – these were the things that kept me reading. Were there strongly Christian religious and spiritual themes woven through the story? Absolutely; but they were included in such a way that they seemed the natural outflow of the characters’ personalities and experiences. And the non-religious characters were not demonised or singled out as the “Other.” The complexity and paradox evident in real mortal lives was present in Dostoyevsky’s characters.

Another one is Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice, which I haven’t read in years (and certainly wasn’t allowed to in my ultra-Christian heydays) but which despite having a mostly “evil” set of protagonists – vampires and demons – ultimately presents them as complex individuals responding as best they can to the particular set of supernatural circumstances they encounter. I really appreciate Rice’s ability to write complex characters with a huge variety of motivations, interests and personality traits, all of them a mix of good and bad, so often relatable, and her refusal to reduce them to stereotypes. In the very wonderful The Wolves of Midwinter, which since I first read it last year is now one of my favourite Christmas stories, the priest Father Jim – the brother of the main character – is never presented as an anti-Catholic stereotype. Nor is he a two-dimensional character who only does priestly things as though he were a mass-saying robot. He is a very human character, one grappling with the stress of hearing confession from people who’ve experienced all kinds of horrors and from trying to do good in helping addicts in a corrupt society where powerful interests oppose his efforts. I love that even though Rice’s personal spiritual journey has led her out of the walls of organised religion, she never reduces her characters within religious contexts to moral examples, but allows them the freedom to have their own experiences and beliefs. In so many ways I wish I could emulate the writing of Anne Rice. Ever since I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a teenager, her style and subject material has been a huge inspiration for me in my own writing journey.

When I write I hope that I resist the urge to limit my characters to mere moral examples in a world orchestrated to prove the point that the exact same worldview to which I ascribe happens to be the correct one. In the hilarious How Not To Write A Novel by Mittelmark and Newman, they make reference to stories that are written in such a way as they seem little more than the author’s own worldview communicated by proxy via their characters – they give the example of a very sympathetic male protagonist who despite his clear efforts to be an all-round wonderful human being, is confronted by the prejudiced, cruel and abhorrent behaviours of a group of feminist women living next door. The agenda in that kind of fiction is pretty clear. If I was writing agenda-laden stories, all my characters would be vegetarian intersectional ecofeminists with a penchant for heavy metal and a love/hate relationship with organised religion and who would find ways to insert references to Trinitarian Christian Universalism into conversations. Luckily for anyone who might read my stories, I try very consciously to not write blatantly autobiographical characters.

PS I must highlight, as always, that while it may often seem that I am attacking all of Christianity everywhere at everytime, that is absolutely not the case. I still seek to follow Jesus Christ, self-identify as a Christian, and I appreciate the humble, kind, God-loving friends I’ve made in my years of involvement in church and respect their faith and greatly appreciate the unsung heroes of Christendom who serve Jesus with honesty and integrity. The thing I am critiquing here is a very specific and statistically unusual yet very influential variant on Christian belief that has only existed within very recent history, within certain cultural contexts; and even then, I am not seeking to negate all that I have experienced within that system. I am merely attempting to process through a sometimes traumatic decade of my life in which this type of Christianity has played a very central role, and sort the good from the bad. I still believe in the teachings of Jesus, and that they are wonderful when shared by loving and gracious believers and when they are expressed as faithfully as possible to the original intent of His teachings, and I love the Bible and seek to read it in light of Jesus’s teachings. I do not think that being a Christian means we shouldn’t critique the socio-historical-political recently invented aspects of this religious system out of an understandable but false attempt to preserve the perception of unity. Every generation of the church needs to confront its damaging social structures and dysfunctional aspects as well as embracing its goodness – it doesn’t need to be a false dichotomy of “for or against.” Only then can we walk in integrity.

PPS I didn’t manage to work on my Nanowrimo yesterday. I made the mistake of saying, “Just a quick look at facebook won’t hurt.” Ten open browser tabs and a whole lot of fleeting annoyance at people’s opinions later, I really was my own worst enemy when it came to writing.

Current word count: 9,129  words.

Today’s writing soundtrack: 90125 by Yes.

SOS Blak Australia

sosblakaustralia

I’ve long been concerned with the pressures faced by Indigenous communities – while not Indigenous myself, I count Indigenous people among my extended family members and friends. I greatly sympathise with the horrifying history and its continuing ramifications faced by the people groups forced into slavery, genocide, and countless other cruelties beyond imagining. I believe that we as a nation must work to repair the damage caused by our ancestors, to seek reconciliation not just in word but in deed. I also had the privilege of taking a few semesters of Australian Indigenous Studies at university – I highly recommend it as a course of study for Arts students who want to challenge their assumptions about the history of Australia (which started long before 1788!). It was at times disturbing, confronting and challenging, but worth every tear shed over the merciless murders and violence committed over the men, women and children slaughtered by our forebears. There are those who say there were no wars fought on Australian soil – but they forget the Indigenous peoples who resisted the invasion and often paid with their lives.

This is an important social action group speaking out against the forced closure of Australian Aboriginal communities that’s been set up recently (March 2015) – jump over to their Facebook page to find out more. It would be great to add to the many international voices jumping on board to support this worthy cause.

https://www.facebook.com/sosblakaustralia