Monday, June 6, 2011

Michal Breen: Impressions from the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival

The Sydney Writers Festival is one of the largest such events in the world, so when I heard that my friend and professional colleague Michael Breen was going I asked him if he would write a piece for the blog. 

Michael's article is presented in two parts. Part 1 What Economists Can't Buy You and Have We Got a Lie for You is published below. Part 2  Media-politician folie a deux and Gatekeepers, Whistle blowers and Imperialism will be published over coming days.

An earlier piece Michael wrote on the Legacy of memories of Jimmy Governor is one of the most read pieces on this blog. 

After many years as a Jesuit teacher, educator and leader in Australia and overseas, Michael lived in Western Australia for many years where he established one of WA's leading small management consultancies. I was fortunate to work with and learn from Michael in the early years of my consultancy career.

Michael retired to Canberra and now lives in the NSW Southern Highlands where he continues to write and think about contemporary issues and educates and agitates about social and political issues.
Impressions  from the Sydney Writers Festival 
by Michael Breen
Mostly we don’t see writers we read their stuff. So it is unusual for thousands of readers to meet hundreds of writers to listen and respond and start a million conversations. Why is the Sydney Writers’ Festival one of the largest such events in the world? What is its magnetism? Chip Rowley the festival’s artistic director quotes Milan Kundara from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.  Much of the festival for me was unearthing things we should never have had the chance to forget.
 Three streams of thought emerged from the sessions I attended.
One was what you could call dangerous information, the second information in decline and the third the non-rational gap between information and action.
What Economists can’t buy you.
Ross Gittins, Herald journalist and economic commentator’s session “The Happy Economist” was a sell out as were copies of his book. Gittins said Bob Hawke jolted him with a statement that ‘economics is about happiness’. So Gittins chased up happiness, its definitions and surprises, like facts that conservatives are more happy than progressives.
Can money buy happiness? Most people we know would say “no”. But strugglers need bread and money for to buy some of it. The paradox is that we say money won’t give you happiness but act as if the opposite is true.  We say natural resources like air, water etc. are precious but act as if they are almost free and infinite. To economise we cut expensive labour costs and at the same time waste natural unrenewable resources. We use an indicator like Gross Domestic Product because it is expressed in numbers, because we consider numbers give facts close to reality, even though GDP is not a measure of national wellbeing.
Gittins, who has commented for decades on economics, and economies, points out economists operate as if the economy is in a box separate from the planet. The planet is near breaking from cancerous expansion of population, and inordinate consumption on the one hand and degradation of precious finite resources on the other. We are on a hedonistic treadmill where running will not reach happiness, but bring eventual unhappiness.
 So for the situation to even start to get better rich countries need to live more simply, to reduce consumption and give some of their utilities to poorer countries, to reduce population, to protect resources and to reform economic thinking. 
 Paul Gilding in “Growing Pains” a joint session with Gitting argued that the crisis is with us now and growing and that like the crisis of World War II new leaders will arise and the changes for sustainability will go on for centuries. Planet Saved! Gilding seems not to understand the behaviours of groups in crisis. One of the irrational responses to crisis, apart from the fight-flight we are seeing now, is the notion that a messianic figure or figures will emerge and save us. Gittins’ hope lies in changes to thinking by economists, governments and people despite our non-rational behaviour.
Have we got a Lie for You
The second and very central stream at the festival was the Wikileaks phenomenon. In the year since last year’s festival, Assange and co have changed the international information stage by removing some of the illusory props and widening the proscenium. Wikileaks have done so in the size of their information dump, the seriousness and secrecy involved and the effects flowing to journalism and governments. Much of the material we suspected was there is now on show. Suspicions are now evidenced based. So far more damage has been done to government and corporation images, their credibility and egos than trauma to individuals or groups; except of course for Corporal Bradley Manning and Assange. The former in arguably torturous solitary confinement and the latter the plaything of the imperial and Swedish justice systems.

Leaker’s (there ought to be a better title; how about “searchlighters”, “unearthers”, “spin strippers”?) have often been personally damaged which trauma fuels the rage of their activism. Julian Assange is a highly intelligent, very complex, betimes grandiose and naïve soul. Often the man’s personal private activity gets more  focus than his publishing. And wouldn’t governments and corporations much prefer that angle? The Writers’ Festival owes Assange a lot for his efforts but when asked at a large Town Hall session on Wikileaks what Australia could do to support him the audience applauded loudly. Andrew Fowler said lawyers and journalists need to pressure government, Sulette Dreyfus pointed out we ought pressure parliamentarians about a piece of proposed legislation limiting information and increasing ASIO powers. But Assange and Manning?

Hopefully governments will be forced to lower the barriers between what is essentially secret and what is not. The fear, though, is that they will erect tougher barriers to protect their embarrassment. There is talk in the USA of amending the freedom of speech amendment to enhance secrecy. Many journalists feel guilty about not preventing the Iraq war and so they ought take more risks while absolutely defending their sources. Yet how do you manage that if you work for the Murdoch Empire?


Breenus said...

This is all very fine...but there is a committee working on the celebration of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. We ought to be getting this kind of material to them.

Ciaran Lynch said...

I'm not sure what it changes.. Surely it has to be expected, if prior to federation Australia contributed forces to at least four Imperial wars, that the biggest and the most in need was to ask for, trick into or use more.

I know it begs questions about honesty and for no other reason it should be exposed, but does it really chanmge anything and shouldn't it just be another - albeit early - example of worker exploitation?

Breenus said...

Good point Ciaran, however I think there are two reasons to give it an outing. 1. Some hopeful erosion of the nonsense of Gallipoli as the mythical basis for Oz becoming a nation and all the militarist stupidity contained therein. How embarrassing and debasing to belong to a nation which claims Anzac Day and Australia Day as celebrations! 2. The notion that by crawling to a foreign nation we are safer and more "world-players" instead of puerile and dependent instead of an independent body notable for the ability to help others like Norway or even New Zealand. Every time we go maintain "alliances" with empires we come off worse than imagined. Absit.

Ciaran Lynch said...

So the argument against WW1 and Gallipoli specifically as 'the birth of a nation' still simmers?
I thought it had been generally accepted now, that WW1 served as a kind of spiritual awakening, a reason to acknowledge country as place rather than allegiance to the crown?

I can understand republican sentiment but history takes time to assert itself, and the country is still so new that early encounter with sacrifice is still the only great loss it has suffered. Myth may have taken over noe=w and because of that it may be too late. But what else can Australia hang its hat on?

Breenus said...

What else can Australia hang its at on, indeed Ciaran? How about a federation of states without bloodshed? How about a fair mix of people without too many ghettoes? How about a fairly long history of democratic government? How about "fair dinkum" our most untranslatable word and therefore most idiosyncratic? How about the ability to laugh at ourselves? Or perhaps best of all A.D.Hope's poem "Australia"? But I think it is how we chose to use our neutrality into the future that could be our special quality. By the way why do we need to hang our hat on anything?

Breenus said...

By the way, where is the basis for the notion that great suffering amounts to greatness? Sounds too Judeo-Christian-Celtic for me. Surely it is the response to suffering in a humane way rather than being a victim or seeking revenge or treating others as the sufferers themselves have been treated, as in Israel, or incorporating suffering into a philosophy of life like the four noble truths of Buddhism that greatness or great ordinariness flows.

Ciaran Lynch said...

There are plenty of great things about Australia, I know. Things you quote there for a start. It's not so much a question of what is great about living in Australia but the idea of nationhood itself. Persoanlly, I think fairdinkum is kind of ridiculous. It's idiosyncratic, sure, but it's a bit plastic paddy too. Caricature and outback, not really true. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know but I also don't know many people who use the word.

I agree that chosing something negative or sorrowfuL - as you put it, Judeao-Christian-Celtic (which really rings true)- like WW1/Gallipoli shouldn't be the automatic choice or thing but senses of place and belonging and attachment are powerful emotions and being democratic, middle class, self deprecating and mildly idiosyncrtatic aren't perceived as 'great' human or national qualities.

I don't have an answer to this, by the way. The question of nationhood and what it is that constitutes 'being Australian' but I can see why something like sacrifice (and being hoodwinked into that sacrifice perhaps strengthens the feeling behind it) can give rise to profound notions of attachment.

I think that's what I mean by 'something to hang its hat on.'

Breenus said...

so much of our discussion of what it is to be an Australian is a cringe, Cairan. Try this

A D Hope

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate gray
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.