In a year that shone light on systemic failures and abuse in old institutions, we ceded more control of our lives to new institutions claiming utopian ideals. The year in review. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Looking back in anger
A year of Trump, and a year of becoming allergic to my disgust. Throughout 2017, I spent a few words reflecting on his surreal inadequacies. There’s only so many pejoratives you can bear to string together. So at the end of the year, we might give thanks for the things that haven’t happened: war, recession, the dumping of Robert Mueller.
We might also give thanks to his country’s courts, media and diplomatic corps. Trump’s overreach has been lawfully restrained. Judges have intervened on illegal executive orders. Mueller continues to investigate – and indict. The media has been animated, not quelled, by Trump’s cynical contempt. Until this week, when congress passed his “big, beautiful” tax cuts, his legislative achievements were very close to zero.
But the tax cuts are a triumph for the president, if not for his country’s accounts. It is the biggest taxation reform in the United States in decades. Corporate tax will be slashed, permanently, from 35 to 21 per cent. Individual taxes, across all income brackets, will be cut temporarily. “The Tax Cuts are so large and so meaningful, and yet the Fake News is working overtime to follow the lead of their friends, the defeated Dems, and only demean,” the US president tweeted. “This is truly a case where the results will speak for themselves, starting very soon.”
You might expect corporate America to have rejoiced. They didn’t. At a Wall Street Journal conference last month, Trump’s senior economic adviser, Gary D. Cohn, asked a room filled with executives who among them would invest more if the cuts were legislated. Only a few hands went up. “Why aren’t the other hands up?” Cohn asked.
One reason might be that the cuts are not mitigated by spending reductions. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, over the next decade, the tax cuts will add a trillion dollars to the country’s debt. The word “deficit” has vanished from Republicans’ vocabulary.
Trump has estranged allies while retweeting fascists. He has abused his country’s cabinet, immigrants, spooks, judges, military, athletes, journalists, actors, diplomats... In fact, it would be more efficient to list the individuals and institutions he hasn’t spat on impetuously. He has inspired a carousel of staff that, in its villains and wacky tumult, resembles a script of General Hospital.
When projected from the Oval Office, insecurity and self-obsession render themselves spectacularly. But here I am again with the pejoratives. I am tired of my disgust, but confess to being magnetised to its cause.
One of the stories of the year has been the serial exposure of powerful men abusing women. It is – or we hope it to be – a watershed moment. It is a moment that has revealed not so much individual aberration but systemic rottenness. And it is far from over.
But among this reckoning are still dubious arguments and rhetorical tics. An example came this week, via the public dispute between actors Matt Damon and Minnie Driver. In an interview with American network ABC, Damon said there was a “spectrum of behaviour... [and] a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated – without question – but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
Apparently such a statement is now not only controversial, but also repugnant. Driver was aghast and described Damon’s suggested spectrum as “Orwellian”. If anything is Orwellian, it is the witless invocation of his name – alongside numerous other buzzwords – as a substitute for clear thinking. “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language”.
Driver’s repudiation of Damon began on Twitter, but she was sufficiently piqued to expand her ideas with The Guardian. “There is no hierarchy of abuse – that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for… you cannot tell those women that one is supposed to feel worse than the other.”
But if there is no hierarchy of abuse, what function does the law serve? Is part of Driver’s concern her belief that the making of distinctions leads to acceptance of lesser offences? If so, this concern should not go unchallenged. By distinguishing between offences we are not exonerating the offender. By finding that a man has not raped a woman, a court is not saying that it is forgivable that he exposed himself to her.
Driver’s greater concern, though, is that by socially distinguishing between offences, the man – Matt Damon in this case – glibly determines for the woman how she should feel about the offence. We’re on firmer ground here. Driver is right in suggesting that men should listen before they speak, and to think before sharing smug or unfeeling assumptions. No woman wants to be told by a man how to feel about something that the man is unlikely to experience himself.
Yes, we are all entitled to our feelings. Another axiom. But as a psychologist will tell you, feelings aren’t facts. And they are not, simply by virtue of being possessed, automatically healthy or proportionate. Driver’s comments contain the narcissism of our age: that our feelings should have supremacy over law, psychology, or common sense.
The villains of this year – and there are plenty – have in common a disrespect for women. But surely we can condemn all expressions of disrespect, while distinguishing between them.
A reckoning with male complacency and condescension is overdue, but if we also agree that ideas matter, then the bad ones should be weeded from the good. To help this, we might turn to psychology – or whatever the appropriate disciplines are in a given context – to nourish our cultural theories, rather than allowing them to foment in self-satisfied isolation.
Systemic rottenness was the theme of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which delivered its final report last week. Authorised by then prime minister Julia Gillard, the commission lasted almost five years. One recommendation of the commission – made years ago – was for a national redress scheme, made operational by July of this year. It is overdue. Currently, a bill for the compensation scheme is before parliament.
On the day the commission’s report was delivered to the governor-general, a mother of a child abuse victim told me: “I can’t believe that royal commission has finally come to an end. It is hard to imagine that much of the unfinished business will ever be dealt with properly now without the spotlight of the media and tireless advocacy of support groups. I feel really sad for those victims who are waiting for their promised redress and compensation… Let’s hope that people remain shocked enough by the horror that was exposed, and the disgusting complicity of the institutions and people in power, that enough of us remain vigilant and protective of our precious children.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned 50 this year, and Paul McCartney, who turned 75, played to full stadiums across the country. If Sgt. Pepper enchanted the world with its drug-kissed optimism, the “White Album” – a disturbed mosaic of paranoia and anger – seems a more appropriate record for our times.
The “White Album” – officially The Beatles – has nursery rhymes and sun-ripe melodies, but the album is cast in the shadow of retreating faiths. Lennon disavows his spiritual guru and tries to coax a friend from fanatical meditation. George spits uncharacteristic misanthropy in “Piggies”. The era’s optimism was curdling, and Charles Manson – who died this year at 83 – would soon use The Beatles as a soundtrack to mass murder. Sgt. Pepper may have promised an endless harvest of love and creativity, but less than a year later the soil seemed less arable.
Today, the utopian dreams of the ’60s are most vividly present in Silicon Valley, argued journalist Franklin Foer in this year’s breezily polemical World without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Foer is far from the first to link Californian hippies with the libertarian ethos of the Valley. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine first published in 1968, was a legendary tract of the counterculture. Offering “access to tools”, it sought the promotion of self-sufficiency by publishing articles and product reviews on almost everything. Carpentry, bee-keeping, growing dope. Steve Jobs once referred to it as a “generational bible” and a precursor to Google’s search engine. It ambitiously sought a blissfully collaborative, non-hierarchical world – which was precisely the same dream for the internet.
You won’t be surprised to learn that, in 2017, this utopia hasn’t quite been fulfilled. Having established the greatest surveillance operation in history, Facebook now serves us the news – fake or otherwise – it has determined we’ll like. It hardens our cognitive shells with a medium that was designed, in the words of one of its initial investors this year, to addict us. At last count, Facebook had two billion active users.
Facebook, Google and Twitter’s usefulness to political mischief – and its swallowing of online ad revenue – finally attracted the attention of the US congress this year. Adam Schiff, a Democrat representative on the House Intelligence Committee, fingered the health of the utopia: “Part of what made the Russia social media campaign successful [in the US presidential election] is that they understood algorithms you use that tend to accentuate content that is either fear-based or anger-based.”
No chief executive of these companies appeared before the congressional inquiries, and Mark Zuckerberg must have been laughing when, in the week Facebook’s appearance ended, his company recorded a surge in profit close to $US5 billion.
It’s a supreme idiocy to reduce the value of the internet to a good/bad proposition – technology assumes a moral or civic value according to its use, and those uses are myriad and contradictory. Of course they are. We contain multitudes, and freedoms are used both constructively and abusively. But, Foer argued, we have marvelled at the giants’ life-changing technologies for too long, at the cost of paying attention to their tax-dodging, monopoly-making, privacy-eroding ambitions.
The old moguls know the score, and are selling up. Late this year, fearful of Amazon, Frank Lowy sold Westfield. Rupert Murdoch, fearing Netflix, sold a good portion of Fox. Online retail and entertainment is the game now. And the Valley’s iconoclasts are the masters of the universe.
But before the world bows in supplication to the giants of the Valley, an interesting note from Professor Fred Turner, who reflected on Silicon Valley’s attraction to the ’60s counterculture: “Google and other firms say, ‘Don’t regulate us. We need to be creative. We need to be free to pursue our satisfaction because that’s ultimately what will provide a satisfying society.’ That’s all a way of ignoring the systems that make the world possible. One example from the ’60s that I think is pretty telling is all the road trips. The road trips are always about the heroic actions of people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and their amazing automobiles, right? Never, never did it get told that those road trips were only made possible by Eisenhower’s completion of the highway system. The highway system is never in the story. It’s boring.”
Steven Spielberg’s The Post was released in the US this week. Concerned with The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, it is both a nostalgic tribute to journalism and an urgent protest of the current president’s threat to it. But the existential dangers to journalism are not found in Trump alone – far from it.
Spielberg’s film is a simple love letter to the liberal gatekeepers of the old mastheads. But these days, the Post is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a man previously committed to eliminating gatekeepers – something he’s done quite well, if only to install himself as one of the world’s most powerful examples.
As journalism continued to lose advertising revenue – and the Australian government passed media laws designed, in part, to militate against it – it also lost some legends. Lillian Ross died at 99. In the 1950s, Ross prefigured “New Journalism” with a style far subtler than its more famous scribes, such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Ross became famous with her 1950 New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway, which memorably captured its subject’s vivacity and comic machismo. We hear Hemingway chastise Manhattan’s birds for their lack of ambition and boast of once getting drunk with a bear. Ross offered no commentary – she knew the quotes and dry descriptions spoke for themselves. She was always an unobtrusive reporter. “The act of a pro is to make it look easy,” she wrote in her 2002 memoir. “Fred Astaire doesn’t grunt when he dances to let you know how hard it is. If you’re good at it, you leave no fingerprints.”
Clare Hollingworth, author of the “scoop of the century”, died at 105. A decorated war correspondent, Hollingworth was crossing the German–Polish border in 1939 when a hessian screen blew up to reveal German tanks amassed on the opposing border. World War II was imminent. Thirty years later, Hollingworth was filing from Saigon, following correspondence from Palestine, Algeria and China.
The word “legendary” is one of those lovingly exaggerated adjectives used in eulogies. I think it can be appropriately applied to ABC journalist Mark Colvin, who died this year at 65. Colvin finally succumbed to a rare disease contracted decades ago on foreign assignment, and it left the ABC’s anchors with the painful responsibility of announcing the death of a friend on live television.
Erudite and infinitely curious, Colvin was also generous in his counsel to younger journalists.
It was a year of fire. The nightmarish Grenfell inferno asked questions of political and civic neglect, hostilities with North Korea revived nuclear anxieties, and California was twice ravaged by bushfire. This year is looking to be the second-hottest year on record – the hottest was 2016.
Sport offered its distractions. Perth Glory’s Sam Kerr has become one of the world’s best soccer players, and her goal for the Matildas against China last month offered one of the year’s highlights. Australia’s cricket captain Steven Smith established himself as the world’s best batsman and, with an average of almost 70, drew comparisons with Bradman. For once, they didn’t seem hyperbolic. Not bad for a bloke who made his Australian debut as a leg-spinner batting at eight.
After missing the previous season to injury, Melbourne’s Ben Simmons made his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers. Before this year, well over 3000 games had been played in the NBA by Australians. None of those games yielded a triple-double – that is, double digits in three statistical categories. Simmons achieved one in only his fourth. An athletic freak, Simmons has a lock on the league’s rookie of the year award and in short time will be a global superstar.
This year, HBO’s The Leftovers finished its third and final season. An obscure masterpiece, its characters find themselves awaiting the end of the world in Australia. The series begins three years after the “Sudden Departures”, a Rapture-like vanishing of 2 per cent of the Earth’s population. It is an inexplicable and shattering phenomenon. Loved ones are there, then not there.
Christians are bleakly perplexed. What appeared to be the prelude to Armageddon has not merely ushered the righteous to heaven, but a contrary group that includes killers and Muslims. The pope is gone – but so is Gary Busey. Where was the promised discernment?
The Departures are also distressingly arbitrary for atheists – some are untouched, others lose whole families. As a plot conceit, it’s brilliant: the certitudes of the pious and the unbelieving are challenged equally. However you view the world, it has tilted off its axis.
There is theological and scientific conjecture, and the US government establishes a bureaucracy to investigate the phenomenon and provide compensation. Some stoically bear the trauma and pretend to continue as before. Others can’t disguise their distress and drift into exotic forms of self-abuse. Families splinter. People dream of suicide. Many, feeling exquisitely vulnerable, join one of the hundred cults blossoming across the country. There is fertile soil for charlatans offering their “divine” interpretations. The world reverberates with fake news.
The show is less interested in answering its riddles than observing how we fill the holes left by inexplicable trauma. In our time of mutual loathing and incomprehension, there are worse things to contemplate than this brilliantly strange meditation on how we try to find a little order, and a little comfort, in the chaos.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Looking back in anger".
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