Monthly Archives: May 2022

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 May 2022

Theodosian Walls of Constantinople Source: Wikimedia

History of Rome Podcast Episode 138 The New Rome looks at the transformation of Byzantium from a small town with a population in the tens of thousands into the New Rome (‘Constantinople’ was a nickname, and it was only adopted formally later on). Many emperors had based themselves in places other than Rome, and Byzantium had the advantages of water on three sides (and thus difficult to besiege) and no religious baggage of other pagan gods. Just as in the early establishment of Rome, Constantine needed to augment its population, so he welcomed both the poor and the greedy as immigrants. It took six years to build. Quite apart from his building activities, though, Constantine embedded his power by killing off his own son Crispus. It’s not clear why, but his stepmother Fausta seems to have been involved. Then, Constantine executed his wife Fausta by locking her in a steam room. Realizing that killing your wife and son was not a good look, he sent his mother Helena on a tour of the East to identify important Christian sites. This was a very popular pilgrimage. In terms of policy and ideology, Constantine’s reign was an extension of Diocletian’s policies in terms of Divine Right of the emperor, the separation of the military and civil arms of government. Unlike Diocletian, he welcomed the role of the Senate but increased its size from 300 to 2000, thus diluting its power. He introduced a new solid gold coin which maintained its value for centuries, although there was runaway inflation with silver coins. He introduced a new and unpopular tax, payable four years in advance and embarked on an empire-wide building program involving both churches (e.g. The Old St Peters Basilica) and secular buildings. Episode 139 Wash Away Your Sins looks at Constantine’s military activity and succession plans. He continued the policy of Germanization of the empire and the army, and the failure of the Germans to integrate was to be one of the causes of the downfall of the empire. At this stage, his legions were successful against the rebellious tribes of the Rhine and the Danube. After killing off Crispus, he seasoned his remaining three sons by putting them in charge of the army. For some reason, he decided to pick a war with the Sassanids on the pretext of protecting Christians under their rule. But he died in Nicomedia, just after embarking on this battle, and got baptized just before he died. You might have thought that he would have been baptized earlier, but this could be because he wanted to be able to sin until the last minute, or more charitably, because he wanted to be pure as the driven snow when he actually died. His succession plans were messy: he left it to his three sons and two nephews. In assessing Constantine, he was certainly a transformational emperor and one of the most important historical figures in Western history. But he had his darker side too: the assassinations, the messy succession plans etc., so it’s a mixed record. Episode 140: My Three Sons. Well, three sons and two nephews isn’t going to end well. Constantius II started things off with the Massacre of the Princes at his father’s funeral, killing off most of his cousins and uncles from his aunt Theodora’s line over two days. Then the three boys (all named very similarly) Constantius, Constantine II and Constans began fighting among themselves, and getting involved on different sides of the doctrinal battles going on in the Christian church,. In the end Constantine II died in an ambush, leaving just two, Constantius in charge of the East and Constans in charge of the West.

Australia If You’re Listening. Episode 7 The Countdown on Coal Fired Power was a cracker. It starts off with the South Australian tornado in 2016 that saw electricity pylons scattered like pick-up-sticks and which was instantly blamed on renewable energy. In fact, whenever there is a power blackout, politicians in Australia and around the world tend to blame renewables. The reality is that it is the old coal-powered stations that are falling over, with near misses and disasters like the Callied Turbine failure outside of Biloela in Queensland, and the Hazelwood fires that blanketed the La Trobe Valley in smoke in 2014. This was a really good episode.

Conversations (ABC) In A History of War, Richard Fidler (who is such a good interviewer) spoke with historian Gwynne Dyer, who has recently released The Shortest History of War. I was going to give this book a miss because I thought that it would be all about military strategy, but good historian as Dyer is, he takes a much broader approach, integrating history, technology, sociology and psychology. Interesting.

Australian Book Review Frank Bongiorno on enlarging our diminished sense of political leadership looks at the elevation of the political operative and the breakdown of the party system. He points to the Australian of the Year award as an alternative form of political leadership, where in recent years the winners have been ahead of paid politicians. This was recorded prior to the election, and Frank Bongiorno is always worth listening to.

‘To Paradise’ by Hanya Yanagihara

2022, 704 p.

I admit it- I was attracted to the cover of this book, and it was only when I looked closer that I discovered that the author had written A Little Life, a big fat book that I have on my shelves but have not read, even though I know there was a lot of commentary about it. The author is obviously fond of writing big fat books, because this is another one, at 704 pages. But for the last few days I have been completely engrossed in it, and even now I don’t want it to end.

It is set in three parts, each set 100 years apart. This is clear from the start, with the opening pages consisting of three hand-drawn maps, each related to Book I, II or III. The first depicts the the United States in 1893, showing the Free States on the East Coast; the United Colonies in the ‘South’; a blank Uncharted Territories where Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are today; The Western Union comprising California, Washington State and Oregon and the American Union, comprising all the other states, in the centre. The second map is of the Hawaiian Islands in 1993, and the third map, dated 2093, shows Manhattan Island, divided up into Zones, with Central Park now ‘The Farm’ and with Washington Square marked out in Zone 8. The building in Washington Square is important, as it is going to appear in some guise in each of the three Books.

In Book I (1893) we find David Bingham, the unmarried son of a rich grandfather who has made him heir to the Washington Square house on his death. This first book was very evocative of Edith Wharton’s work, both in its focus on the nuances of upper-class life, and in its formal, mannered language. But this New York is set askew: the Free States and the United Colonies are two separate nations after all, and homosexual marriage is an accepted fact. David’s grandfather is concerned that his grandson marry, and so he encourages an arranged relationship between David and the older Charles Griffith. Despite knowing that his grandfather is acting only out of love, David becomes infatuated with an impoverished, unreliable and possibly dastardly teacher Edward Bishop, who implores David to accompany him to California, even though homosexuality is illegal there. I just loved this first part – the cushioned luxury, the restraint, set against the passion and recklessness of David and Edward’s relationship. I didn’t want to let them go as I turned to Book II, set 100 years later in Hawaii.

But hold on- here they are again – David, Edward, Charles, Eden – but they’re not the same people, even though the names are the same. Here is another aimless David Bingham, but this time he is the young partner of an older Charles Griffith, who lives in Washington Square and who this night is hosting the final party of his former lover Peter who is dying of cancer, even though AIDS is ravaging the gay community. He receives a letter from his dying father from Hawaii, another David Bingham, known as Wika (for Kawicka) who has been inveigled? coerced? by an old schoolmate Edward Bishop into stepping into his role as hereditary royalty in establishing a breakaway settlement in Lipo-Wao-Nahale. Edward and David live there, and David’s son (also named David) lived there during vacations as well, until he refused to visit any more, travelling instead to New York where he met Charles Griffith. His father, David Bingham senior, has a breakdown and is hospitalized, writing his last letter to his son. I must admit that after my initial delighting in meeting David, Edward and Charles again, this second book left me underwhelmed, with the last-supper dinner of the dying Peter seeming to stretch on interminably, mirrored by the equally prolonged death of David Bingham senior in Hawaii.

[Update: I have since learned more about the history of Hawaii through a ‘Stuff They Don’t Want You to know podcast, which I mention here, most particularly the coup d’etat by white landowners in 1893. Clearly 1893 is a significant date- but why did she set Part II a hundred years later? I’m mystified.]

Any disappointment that I felt in Book II was quickly forgotten in Book III, set in Manhattan in 2093. It doesn’t surprise me that this book was published in 2022 because it certainly bears the traces of the COVID pandemic. Now that I had realized how the book worked, I was on the lookout for David, Charles and Edward and they were here too, but in very different guises. New York- and indeed, the whole world- had been ravaged by waves of pandemic diseases, with resultant surveillance and government over-reach to quell and fend off the next epidemic. Global warming has resulted in the collapse of the food chain, there is an ongoing drought, and New York is only liveable if you wear a cooling suit while you are outside. Charlie is the grand-daughter of Charles Griffith, who has been the policy architect of a lot of the pandemic responses: confinement of infected people and their families (after initially separating children from their parents, whole families would go into confinement and inevitable death together), wholesale cremations, rigid government control. Charlie had contracted one of the pandemics as a child, and is now infertile and emotionally frozen, and her grandfather arranges for her to marry Edward, a gay man who will look after her but never love her. The narrative is in two parts here: Charlie’s story told with Ishiguro-like flatness, and as a series of letters over decades between Charles and Peter, a high-level bureaucrat in New Britain. While the letters did fill in background for how New York had ended up as it had – and a very depressing trajectory is it, with more points of verisimilitude than I like- the idea of letters being so lengthy and conversational is rather implausible.

Despite its severity, I really enjoyed Part III, as much as I did Part I and I have found myself thinking about Part III a lot since finishing reading it: for me, a sign that a book has really affected me. Reading back over this review, I see that I have likened the writing to Edith Wharton or Kazuo Ishiguro, and there is an element of pastiche about the book. There were hints that the whole thing was going to fall into place with a resounding clunk, but that never happened. Instead there were wisps of connections, and a low drumbeat of repeated themes- homosexuality, illness, searching for something better, loneliness – and the repeated names. Worth 700 pages? For me, yes.

My rating: 9.5/10 (Maybe even 10/10?)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 May 2022

History of Rome Podcast Episode 135 Brothers in Name Only sees Constantine and Licinius dividing up the Empire following the death of Maximinus Daia in 313. It was similar to Octavian and Anthony, way back in Episode 47. Licinius was engaged in a contest with those ever-troublesome Sassanids over Armenia, and Constantine was involved with the Christian church which faced its own questions over what to do with the bishops who had collaborated with the Roman authorities during the Persecution. Bishop Donatus from Africa believed that they should not be admitted back into the church because they were ‘traditors‘. The Donatists (as they came to be called) were often over-ruled by those in the church who took a more forgiving line, so they repeatedly appealed to Constantine to intervene on their behalf. However Constantine emphasized unity over doctrine, as we will see at the Council of Arles. Meanwhile Licinius’ wife (who just happened to be Constantine’s sister) gave birth to a son, so the question of succession arose again. Constantine championed his own son Crispus. Eventually Constantine and Licinius met in battle. Constantine won, and restored the Tetrarchy by appointing two junior emperors- VERY junior, because two of them were babies. Episode 136 Let This Be Our Final Battle sees Constantine’s wife Faustus giving birth to more sons, while Constantine was becoming increasingly overt in his Christianity. Licinius and Constantine met in battle again in 324 CE and this time Constantine triumphed and for the first time in 40 years, Rome was ruled by just the one emperor. Licinius had ruled for 16 turbulent years, and he died in suspicious circumstances in exile. Constantine’s son Crispus came to a bad end in 326CE too, executed on his father’s orders (did he have an affair with his step-mother? Or was it the Wicked Stepmother’s Revenge -again?). Episode 137 The Christian Emperor sees Constantine stepping into his Christianity. He banned pagan worship, and returned property to Christians who had had it confiscated (but this time he didn’t recompense the people who had bought the confiscated goods- he only offered to pardon them). All Constantine wanted was a united church

Australia If You’re Listening Episode 6: Can We Keep Digging for Energy? (ABC) punctures the idea that CCS is going to solve our problems. The irony is that CCS and nuclear power will only ever be feasible if there is a price on carbon- which of course the Liberal/National government has made such a toxic topic. Gas, meanwhile, has been and will continue to be only a small part of our energy mix. However, back-tracking away from an available power source is something that humans have never done before.

In Our Time Early Christian martyrdom. (BBC) With Candida Moss (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham), Kate Cooper (Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London) and James Corke-Webster (Senior Lecturer in Classics, History and Liberal Arts at King’s College London). This episode fits in quite well with my History of Rome podcasts. By 300 CE, about 10% of Romans were Christians when The Great Persecution started with Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD and lasted around eight years. Much of this persecution sprang from an idea that Roman society had to get back to a good relationship with its own Roman gods. It is probably more correct to speak of “Christianities” (plural), and until about 90 CE, as far as the Romans were concerned, Christians were indistinguishable from Jews. Particular attention is paid to Ignatius and Polycarpus, two bishops, and the female Perpetua of Carthage.”Dying for a good cause” was an important idea in Roman society (after all, lots of Roman worthies committed suicide to avoid disgrace), and the idea of a “good death”, especially for a Christian slave, involved just a few hours of pain for the promise of eternal life.

The History Listen (ABC) Buried Treasure: the story of Lake Pedder. Fifty years ago, despite protests, Lake Pedder was flooded to provide hydro-electric power as part of Eric “Electric” Reece’s grand hydro-electric plan. This episode features Rima Truchanas, whose own life is deeply tied to Lake Pedder, after her parents Melva and the photographer Olegas Truchanas joined the campaign to stop it being flooded. Olegas’ photographs were shown at slide shows around Australia, as a way of increasing awareness of this amazing sand-fringed glacial lake. But flooded it was, and six years later there were plans to build another dam on the Franklin River – and this time the protests were heeded. Amazingly, there are now suggestions that Lake Pedder could be rehabilitated as part of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. I don’t really think that it will happen, given the emphasis on hydro-electricity today.

Things Fell Apart (BBC Radio 4) Episode 5: A Scottish Jewish Joke takes us back to the very early days of the internet in 1988 when a software designer, Brad Templeton, uploaded onto a message board a joke in poor taste. The joke was chosen randomly from jokes that were sent to him, and as it turned out, it appeared on the anniversary of Kristalnacht. An MIT academic complained about the joke and tried to get him sacked and banned from Usenet. Stanford University, through which he was able to gain access to the internet, banned the page, explaining that they wanted to value people over caricatures, even if that was at the expense of free speech. John McArthur, a professor of Artificial Intelligence started a petition, arguing that we find the limits of free speech by running into the walls. And this is the Internet as we know it today.

Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know The ‘State’ of Hawaii: Union or Occupation On Foreign Correspondent the other night, they had a program ‘Keep Hawaii Hawaiian’ about the struggle of native Hawaiians for land, language and culture (that sounds familiar). This program gives a really good analysis of the 1893 coup d’etat against Queen Liliʻuokalani by predominantly white landowners in Hawaii, overseen by the U.S.S. Boston which just happened to be moored nearby. The coup was opposed by President Grover Cleveland but a joint sitting of Congress approved it. As recently as 2018 it is still being questioned at UN level. Very interesting- I wonder how many American school kids know about it?

‘As Swallows Fly’ by L.P. McMahon

2021, 384 p.

I had not heard of this book, or its author until L.P.McMahon was invited to be the Ivanhoe Reading Circle’s annual guest speaker. His book, As Swallows Fly is set in Pakistan and Melbourne, but Lawrie himself hails more locally from Rosanna as a child and ended up as Professor of Nephrology at Monash University. That local connection may well have been why the Ivanhoe Reading Circle invited him to speak. His immersion in the world of medicine comes through clearly in his book, particularly at the end, and from his talk we learned that he and his wife had visited a Catholic mission in a Pakistani village which largely mirrors the village in the opening chapters of the book. So, in many ways McMahon is following the injunction “write what you know”.

Although this book is fiction, it evokes shades of the story of Malala Yousafzai, who was severely injured after a Taliban assassination attempt, and was treated in a UK hospital. In this book, however, young Pakistani and Christian Malika was attacked as a more personalized act of resentment and power, and she ended up in Australia more on account of her mathematical brilliance which was being wasted in a small village, than because of her injuries. She boarded at a private school and attended extension activities at the University of Melbourne. As a back-stop, her village priest in Pakistan put her in contact with Dr Kate Davenport, a plastic surgeon, who assumes incorrectly that Malika is hiding her face behind a veil for cultural/religious reasons. Rather implausibly, neither Malika nor Kate realize at first the possibilities for healing that the situation could provide.

The book has several ‘starts’ before arriving at the present day. The opening pages are a prologue set in Melbourne, twenty-three years earlier where we sense the tension between a teenaged Kate and her mother; Part One commences in Rural Pakistan five years earlier as we learn how Malika came to live in the Christian village and come under the care of Ayesha, her foster mother, along with Tahir, a Muslim boy, after a car accident. Part Two finally brings us to present-day Melbourne where Kate, now a successful plastic surgeon, is cleaning out her now-deceased mother’s house when she is approached to care for Malika on the weekends. Part Three takes us to Malika’s boarding school, where she struggles with the other girls, who are jealous of her brilliance. Part Four explores the evolving relationship between Malika and Kate, and expands on Kate’s own working life and the political struggles in a high-stress, ego-driven profession, along with the family emotional baggage that she is still dealing with. If you think that there’s going to be a Cinderella ending, between the plastic-surgeon and her damaged protege – there’s not.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here- rather too much, I think. I was rather surprised that McMahon chose to write from the point of view of two women- Kate and Malika- and he generally carried it off sensitively, with just a few infelicities. By making Kate a plastic surgeon, McMahon was able to explore ideas of facial perfection and imperfection, but at times I felt that he betrayed his male gaze in his descriptions of women. The author’s own medical experience comes through, especially in the sections dealing with professional rivalry with other specialists, and in medical terminology when describing clinical conditions. I certainly don’t share Malika’s gift for mathematics, and I just have to take on trust that her fascination with the flocking behaviour of swallows as a mathematical problem is more than just a metaphor for being on the edges of the crowd. Some of the characters seemed rather one-dimensional: the only mentions of Muslim characters were negative, and Sam the receptionist was so brazen as to be a caricature. The narrative relied heavily on dialogue, which at times verged on the banal and the writing felt forced at times.

In spite of my reservations about aspects of this book, I found myself more emotionally engaged with the characters than I expected to be, and sat up in bed until quite late to finish the book. And I’m always attracted to books set in my own home town, and he wrote Melbourne well.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZBookLovers enjoyed the book (probably more than I did) and reviewed it here.

‘The Coal curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future’ by Judith Brett QE 78

2020, 75 p. Follow up correspondence in QE 79 The End of Certainty, Katherine Murphy

My son will testify that I have about 50 Quarterly Essays on my shelf, most of which have not even been opened. I seem to put them aside thinking “Ooooh- I must read this after I have finished reading….” and somehow I never do. I was impelled to read Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse, released in 2020, after hearing her participation in Matt Bevan’s Australia, If you’re Listening podcast.

She started writing her essay just after Christmas in 2019, when our cities had been smothered in smoke and our newspapers carried those stark hell-red photos of people on the beach at Mallacoota, waiting for small boats to evacuate them. She finished writing it in May 2020, in the midst of our early coronovirus lockdowns. As the fires burned, she was angry. Ross Garnaut had predicted fires of this scale back in 2008 but Angus Taylor had returned from the Madrid UN-convened climate change conference, declaring that we should be proud of our climate change efforts.

I have written this essay in an attempt to do something constructive with my grief and anger, and my fear for our collective future; not just to fume and blame, but to try to understand.


As a historian, she looked for explanations in the past – in those decisions and events that have shaped our present actions and future possibilities.

This is just a fancy way of saying that history matters, but it does shift our attention from the contingencies of events and personalities to structures and institutions. This essay is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences. Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.


Her essay is in two parts: first, a historic overview of how Australia came to become ‘resource cursed’ and second, how the resource lobby has captured successive Australian governments, but most particularly the Liberal/National Party coalition. She notes that in 2017 Australia came 93rd out of 133 economies ranked according to the diversity and complexity of exports. New Zealand was 51. In 2018-19 seven of our top ten exports were from the quarry and one from the farm (just as Donald Horne warned in The Lucky Country). In order, they were: iron ores and concentrates, coal, natural gas, education-related travel services, personal travel except education, gold, aluminium ores and concentrates, beef, crude petroleum, copper ores and concentrates. Neither the quarry nor the farm really generates much employment, no matter how much they crow about their importance to “jobs- jobs- jobs”. When Australia was first settled, our economy relied on wool being loaded onto sailing ships for Britain, our major export destination until Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973, after years of signalling that it would do so. Australia was saved by Japan and its demand for iron ore to make steel, replacing Britain as our top export destination in 1967. In 2009-10 top spot went to China. Between 1980 and 2013 there was a tripling of coal exports. In the early 2000s liquefied coal seam gas joined the ranks of the top exports, and we are now the world’s largest LNG exporter.

Against this reliance on primary produce and mineral wealth, neither of which require a large workforce, Australia needed to industrialize in order to create sufficient jobs for its population, especially after the gold rush. Victorian liberals (i.e. colonial liberals coming from the state of Victoria) were protectionists, flying in the face of both NSW policy and the current British economic theory of Free Trade. Protection won the day when the Australian states federated, with a goal of Australians buying Australian-made goods. Australian manufacturing was turbo-charged by WWII. Migration, foreign investment and protection combined to create a greatly expanded Australian manufacturing sector, peaking in the late 50s-early60s at just under 30% of GDP. We could have developed an export-oriented manufacturing industry, but tariff protection made local management lazy. But Australia was swimming against the international tide, which was increasingly moving to cut trade barriers. Under a Liberal government, the Tariff Board under the chairmanship of Alf Rattigan itself proposed a review of tariffs in 1967; and with a change of government Whitlam cut tariffs in 1973 (although Fraser reinstated some of them). By the time Hawke came to power in 1983, neoliberalism was becoming dominant, and it was a Labor government that, with the aim of revitalizing manufacturing, floated the dollar, opened the banking and finance sectors, and reduced tariffs to a single rate of 5% by 1996, with exemptions carved out for textile, clothing and footwear, and the car industry. However, looking back, this policy failed in revitalizing manufacturing, if that was its aim. Tourism and education thrived, but manufacturing did not. From 12% of GDP in 2000, by 2006 manufacturing was just over 10% of GDP, 5.8% by 2013. Its share of employment at 7.5% was just a third of 2007’s 21% of the workforce. The rise of China and its cheap goods knocked manufacturing out completely, but the demand for iron ore disguised the effect. It was China’s demand that helped Australia weather the 2007-09 Global Financial Crisis, and by now Australia has lost the capacity to manufacture things- something brought home painfully by the COVID pandemic and the supply chain problems that continue more than two years later.

This might not be a problem, were it not for the rising carbon dioxide levels, with a discernable effect on global temperatures. But it is a problem, and the entrenched fossil-fuel industry is fighting back. At first the fight was against indigenous land rights and the ability of indigenous owners to veto mining development. In this, the Australian Mining Industries Council joined with the National Party in opposing native title, thus promoting a grizzled human face in an akubra hat to an industry dominated by machines. Having hobbled native title, the mining industry entrenched its power further by lobbying, political advocacy, donations – and most disturbingly – the churn of personnel between government and lobby groups and back again in what Guy Pearse called ‘The Greenhouse Mafia’. It is certainly alive and well. Just look at the way that the government pounced on a ‘gas-led’ recovery as the solution to COVID, our indecent haste to ship coal over to Ukraine, and most recently, the number of mining-industry-related people that the LNP government has just appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Two decades of cultivation of a network of climate skeptics by the Lavoisier Group, the IPA and the Murdoch press have made climate change a toxic brew for any government. Many of our politicians, predominantly on the Coalition side but also amongst Labor, have been captured by this lobby. But resistance is rising from unexpected quarters. The Lock the Gate movement opposing coal and coal seam gas developments is challenging the social licence of the fossil-fuel companies, and renewables are becoming more attractive as an investment. However, Brett is clear-eyed about the continuing power of the fossil-fuel lobby, and the probability that

…our leaders will stick with what they know and eschew innovation, like the men of the early 1960s, when Donald Horne complained that decades of tariff protection had produced a “look-no-brains attitude”. The signs are it will be more business as usual than embrace of the new.


One of the advantages of reading a Quarterly Essay months (ahem- years) after it has been published, is that you get to read the correspondence generated by the essay in the following volume. Most of the correspondents in Issue 79 concurred with Brett, although rather predictably Andy Lloyd (Rio Tinto) came out with most of the fossil-fuel lobby talking points that Peter Christoff (University of Melbourne) predicted (e.g. we don’t contribute much to carbon; if we don’t sell, someone else will; technology -especially CCS- is the answer). Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis pointed out that many investment and superannuation funds are divesting from fossil-fuel industries. I really enjoyed Zoe Whitton from Citi’s Environmental, Social and Government Research Team, who wrote of the paradox that residents of the New Jersey shore who survived through Hurricane Sandy were even less likely to believe in climate change than before. She cited George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, where he suggested that the desire to return to something like normal, to rebuild anew, to express solidarity and perseverance meant that people resisted the prospect that the same thing could happen again. Often the alternatives are so unappealing that we choose not to consider them.

It is outside the scope of Brett’s 2020 essay of course, but I think of the flood waters that have swirled around homes in Queensland and northern NSW multiple times in recent years, and successive floods occuring even within weeks. These ‘events’ are not one-offs anymore, and the lie in terms like ‘one in 1000 year flood’ has been exposed. The cost of rebuilding communities razed by fire, and the piling up of mountains of sodden furniture and carpets, again and again and again will eventually sap the will to persevere and rebuild.

Perhaps then we can shake off the Coal Curse.

Rating: 8/10

Sourced from: my own Quarterly Essay subscription

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 May 2022

The History Listen (ABC). The Benalla Experiment looks at the post-war migrant camp at Benalla in Victoria for single mothers (for whatever reason) and their children from countries affected by war. It was not a transit camp: people stayed there for years. It had a factory next door, and the women worked in the factory to pay back the costs of their voyage, and 24 hour child care was provided. Just as much, this story is about the struggle with Heritage Victoria to get the site recognized for its social and cultural importance, even though many of the buildings are now used by community organizations.

History of Rome Episode 132 In This Sign sees the end of Diocletian who just died after a reign that was important in restructuring the empire but marred by the persecutions and his failure to be able to establish the tetrarchy on a long-term basis. Perhaps that was because a four-headed structure in itself was unstable, or perhaps because none of the others were as good as he was. Meanwhile, Constantine -recognized as the first Christian emperor- was playing a long game. It’s not really clear whether he really was a Christian, or whether he was after the absolute power that it conferred. Christianity didn’t become the state religion for 50 years after Constantine’s death. The story of him painting a cross on his soldiers’ shields is probably apocryphal- he had 40,000 soldiers after all- and it wasn’t a cross, it was a Chi-Ro which certainly indicated Christ but also was a symbol for ‘good’. Moreover, there is no sign of a cross or Chi-Ro on his Triumphal Arch, which is strange.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Wikimedia

Episode 133 The Milvian Bridge goes slow-motion into the battle that pitted Constantine against Maxentius. Maxentius wasn’t particularly popular because he had levied heavy taxes for his building projects, which he hoped would shore up his position. Constantine had 40,000 well trained loyal soldiers: Maxentius had 100,000 lukewarm ones. They first met in battle outside Verona, where Constantine triumphed. He then turned to Rome and the two sides met in battle on the Milvean Bridge over the Tiber. Maxentius consulted his soothsayers over whether he should mount a battle and they said ‘the enemies of Rome will be defeated’. (They didn’t specify which side was the enemy though). When Maxentius’ troops realized that they were being defeated, they tried to cross back over a small pontoon bridge and many (including Maxentius) ended up in the water. Constantine marched into Rome, although he did not sacrifice to Jupiter, which suggests that he had found a new god. This wasn’t the real victory of Christianity over paganism that is often depicted. If Constantine had made a genuine conversion, he certainly underplayed its significance amongst the Romans who weren’t ready to have it imposed on them.

Episode 134 And Then There Were Only Two returns to the East which was divided up between Maximinus Daia and Licinus. Maximinius Daia recommenced the persecution of the Christians that Galerius had put an end to. He genuinely hated Christians, and saw Christianity as a real threat to the Empire. Licinus was an ally of Constantine, with whom he signed the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity, and more importantly, returned confiscated property to Christians. Quite apart from any genuine belief in Christianity, this was a way of wedging Maximinius. The Battle of Tzirallum on 30 April 313 saw Licinus triumph, and now there were just two emperors instead of four.

Australia If You’re Listening (ABC) Episode 5: What We Missed While We Were Knifing PMs goes through the political circus where we saw four powerful people lose their jobs six times. I had heard about the failure of the Labor Party to negotiate with the Greens, but I was unaware of the negotiations between Turnbull, Combet/Wong and Ian McFarlane which could have actually eventuated, but everything was upended by Abbott’s ascension. Ross Garnaut had high praise for Gillard’s system, derided by Abbott as being a ‘tax’, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) only survived because Clive Palmer wanted a photo opportunity with Clive Palmer.

Start the Week (BBC) I haven’t watched Bridgerton, but I know that Regency is having a bit of a moment. The Georgians features Penelope Corfield (author of The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th Century Britain), Tristram Hunt (author of The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain) and Professor Philip McCann , the Chair in Urban and Regional Economics at the University of Sheffield. They discuss the change in consciousness during the Georgian era (which actually is the long 18th century) in relation to commercialisation and expertimentalism and ‘can-do’ism (my word, not theirs). Interesting to consider that Australia was colonized within this Georgian/Victorian timespan.

Things Fell Apart (BBC) Episode 4: Believe the Children looks at the spate of satanic child abuse cases in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, spurred largely by Christian evangelists and the media, and drawing on guilt felt by parents for placing their children in child care. It features an interview with Kelly Michaels, who was sentenced to 47 years imprisonment for sexually abusing children, until her conviction was completely overturned. I found this interesting article about the interviewing techniques used in the McMartin Preschool and Martin cases, compared with a Child Protection Services unit. The satanic child abuse conspiracy of the late 20th century has resurfaced with QAnon today.

How It Happened: Putin’s Invasion Episode 4: The View From Russia challenges the idea that Western sanctions are going to pressure the Russian people into turning against Putin. A Russian commentator points out that 50% of Russians are hard-core Putin supporters. Another 1/3 would be conditional supporters. Only about 20-25% oppose Putin, but they are not necessarily prepared to come out and protest against him. This is largely generational: older people remember much harsher sanctions than the current ones, and younger people have largely fled. Alexei Navalny is Putin’s most prominent opponent, but currently facing charges and imprisonment. His supporters are taking a long view, hoping that in about five years time, when Russia faces an inevitable crisis, they will be ready.

Rear Vision (ABC) The Marcos Revival- from pariahs to the presidency in the Phillipines. Despite his parents embezzling $5-10 billion dollars from the Phillipines, Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos is in a winning position in the Presidential elections this coming week. The outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte is still very popular, despite killing 30,000 Phillipinos, most of whom come from the lower classes. However, his government has spent generously in social welfare programs directly aimed at these same lower classes. Presidents can only serve one six year term, and Duterte had hoped that his daughter Sara would contest the election. However, she decided to run for vice-president in an arrangement with Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, instead, incurring her father’s ire. President Duterte is making lots of insinuations that Marcos is a drug addict. The Marcos family, meanwhile, has had a long-term strategy for decades to rehabilitate the family reputation and entrench its power.

‘Politics and the English Language’ by George Orwell

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve only just started attending the Ivanhoe Reading Circle after 122 years – of the Circle, not of me – and George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ seemed a rather brave choice for a reading group. It was published in 1946 and it is only about 24 pages long. Many of its ideas have been rehashed (in, for example, Don Watson’s Death Sentence) and it’s hard now to come to it with fresh eyes. I must admit that I was rather disappointed in it.

It starts very abruptly, and I felt as if I had walked in on a conversation that had already started. He then goes on to lampoon five examples of writing, and identified four problems: (i)stale metaphors, (ii) ‘verbal false limbs’ (i.e. adding phrases like ‘serve the purposes of’ or adding syllables to a word like ‘deregionalize’). Then there is (iii) ‘pretentious diction’ or the use of foreign words and jargon; and (iv) meaningless words to hide the vacuity of ideas behind them. I don’t share his dislike of metaphors. Certainly they can become stale, but they act as a form of short-hand, and not every one has the clarity and imagination to mint their own. He uses the example of the ‘ancien regime‘ as an example of pretentious diction, but among historians ‘ancien regime‘ has a specific and accepted meaning. He then complains about the gumming together of long strips of words , much as Don Watson did sixty years later but with more elan. (Am I allowed to use that foreign word?).

He then goes on to talk about political language. It is, he claimed “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”. We’re about to be deluged with political writing now that we’re in election mode. I don’t know if it’s the writing about politics that is bad, or just the ‘talking point’ repetition and evasiveness of what comes out of politicians’ mouths that is the problem. “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. All true, but is this a problem of language or intent? To me, it seems that it’s the behaviour around the language, rather than the language, that makes it all so sordid. The failure to call politicians out when they refuse to answer a question; the failure to challenge dubious facts; demonisation (e.g. ‘illegals’ for ‘refugees’); the numbing repetition of phrases (‘going forward’, anyone?) and the dogged labouring of the issue of the day. “All issues are political issues” he says “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, follies, hatred and schizophrenia”. For me, this is the nature of politics, rather than the language used to express it.

He makes some big claims about the connection between language and politics (hence the title of the essay), but he doesn’t back them up. “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” he asserts, but then returns to his criticisms about woolly language and circumlocution. He claims that his prescriptions are not just about simplicity, or ‘good prose style’, and yet these are the solutions he offers without really tearing into the question of language and political imagination. He seems to see politics as only ‘retail’ (another buzz-word that I assume means ‘selling’ a policy) in terms of the hearers receiving politics, but not of creating politics or imagining alternatives.

The discussion at the group provided an opportunity to vent our annoyance at politicians and politics, but I don’t know if we generated anything new. I felt as if it had all been said before – albeit, possibly by Orwell before other people- and it just felt a bit stale.

My rating: No idea. How do you rate this?

Sourced from: purchased e-book, but you can find it online quite easily.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 April 2022

History of Rome Podcast. Episode 129 Abdication. Well, Diocletian had done all that he wanted to do and now all he had to do was work out a transition plan, so that there would be a stable tetrarchy in place to cover the whole of the Roman Empire. Really, although it was called a tetrarchy, it was really two Caesars (junior emperors) and two Augusti, one of whom took the lead- in this case, Diocletian. In Diocletian’s plan, each Augustus would rule for twenty years, then abdicate, the two junior emperors would move up to be Augusti and two new junior emperors would take their place. Simple, eh? Problem was, if he was going to keep the 2X2 structure, he would have to persuade Maximian to retire at the same time, which he managed to do. Galerius and Constantius stepped up, but who was to take their place as junior emperors? Episode 130 Lost in Transition Everyone expected that Constantine and Maxentius, as sons of reigning emperors would be placed in the vacancies, but Diocletian wanted to break the idea of hereditary emperors. So he looked elsewhere. Instead of the hereditary sons, Severus and Maximinus Daza were declared junior emperors. Then Maxentius (the son of Maximian) revolted; Maximian arranged for Severus to be killed; Galerius had to slink out of Italy, and Constantine was lurking up in the north. This is all very confusing- all these Maxes – the names are too similar. Anyway, it’s a stuff-up. Episode 131 The New Game in Town. When Severus was killed, Galerius arranged for his friend Licinius to be appointed and catapulted him up to be Augustus without serving the requisite time as Caesar. Old Man Maximian argued with his son Maxentius, and ended up seeking refuge with his son-in-law Constantine. It was such a mess that they even asked Diocletian to come back, but he said that he was happy tending his cabbages. But then Maximian mounted a come-back against Constantine, who defeated him and was very angry, exhorting him to ‘do the right thing’ and kill himself- which he did. Even though Maxentius and his father weren’t talking, Maxentius vowed to avenge his father’s honour. Then Galerius got sick and smelly and died. This is just getting silly now.

Rear Vision (ABC) The Greens- politics and the environment. I was really impressed by Adam Bandt’s address to the Press Club, and I’m uneasy about the talking-out-of-both-sides-of-your-mouth about the fossil-fuel industry from the ALP. This is the history of the Greens, starting from its roots in the Nuclear Disarmament Party. It put up two candidates for the Senate: Peter Garrett (who was expected to win) and Jo Valentine (who wasn’t). But it didn’t turn out that way, and when Valentine won she distanced herself from the NDP who wanted to tell her how to vote. In the 1970s, Greens parties arose across the world, especially in Europe, and there was an international network of Greens parties. Up until now, the Greens were state-based parties but in 1992 the Federal Green party was formed, after it had sorted out some thorny constitutional problems. It adopted consensus decision making (which was found to be very unwieldy) , the right of a conscience vote for MPs and proscription (i.e. members couldn’t belong to another party). The state parties continued, each with a different flavour. In NSW there were links with the BLF and the socialist parties and an emphasis on environmentalism and conservation; in Tasmania it was about wilderness, damming the Franklin and opposing the Wesley Vale pulp mill, and WA kept its anti-nuclear movement links. Milne rejected Rudd’s climate policy because it locked-in failure: a big judgment call that has embittered many ever since. When the Greens supported Gillard’s minority government, they provided stable support in Senate which contributed to the heavy slate of legislation that the government actually passed.

Australia If You’re Listening (ABC) Episode 4: the decade when climate change became a culture war. This episode picks up on Judith Brett’s contention in The Coal Curse that the mining industry and its lobbyists cut their teeth on the indigenous land rights issue. Hugh Morgan, former CEO of Western Mining Corporation seeded right-wing think tanks like the IPA which, after de-fanging land rights legislation then turned their attention to casting doubt on climate change. When Al Gore came out so strongly for climate change in An Inconvenient Truth, the link was made between Democratic/Labor/Progressive politics and calls for action- and the converse Liberal/Republican/Conservative calls for skepticism.

Things Fell Apart. A Miracle. Tammy Faye Bakker was a wildly successful tele-evangelist, who along with her husband Jim ran the Praise the Lord Ministry. In 1985 she conducted an interview on her ‘Tammy’s House Party’ program with Steve Peters, a man gravely ill with AIDS. Although Tammy Faye’s questions were clumsy and bordering on offensive, for many evangelical Christians it was the first time that they had been exposed to the human face of AIDS. In a twist of fate, after the fall of the PTL empire, Tammy Faye became a gay icon.

War on Truth (BBC). My Son is the Snake Island Hero has an interview with Tetyana, the mother of the Russian soldier who told the Russian warship Moskva to go fuck itself (an interesting visual image). At first she was told that all the Ukrainian soldiers had died, but the Russians accused Ukraine of misinformation as they were, indeed, alive and part of a prisoner swap. Then the Moskva itself sank – Russian say because of fire; Ukrainians say because of attack. The Snake Island soldiers are now depicted on a stamp.

The Explanation (BBC) Understanding the rise of Boko Haram. The journalist Mayeni Jones explains that Nigeria is geographically and politically divided into two parts. The South is wealthy, Christian and humid: the North is poor, arid and Muslim. From 1960s with the granting of independence through to 1999 Nigeria was led by a military dictatorship, but the corruption continued under democratic government. In July 2009 Boko Haram burst onto the scene. Led by Muhummed Yusuf, ‘Boko Haram’, literally means ‘Western Education is forbidden. He was arrested and killed by the police, which just made him a martyr. He was replaced by Abubakr Shekau in 2010, and Boko Haram executed a car bombing inside the UN compound. The first school kidnapping was almost by chance. They were actually looking for a brick making machine, and the girls were there and they took them. In 2021 Abubakr Shekau blew himself up when surrounded by West African Islamic State fighters. Whether it is Al-Qaeda IS or any other terrorist group, there is a huge disaffected young population in Nigeria to draw upon, and the structural problems remain.

Revolutions Podcast Having listened to Mike Duncan talking about the History of Rome (see above), it felt strange to tune back into his Revolutions Podcast, where he’s up to episode 95 of the Russian Revolution. I have no intention of listening to the rest of them (although I did start, years ago), but Episode 95: Russian Empire, Soviet Empire is interesting in light of the Ukraine situation today. He looks at the year 1921, when Russia saw its western regions peeling off into independent (although still heavily influenced) countries like Lithuania, Finland, Ukraine etc. The trade treaty that Russia signed with Great Britain in 1921 conferred de-facto recognition, although US held out until 1933 before recognizing the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Trotsky suggested that because it was clear that the revolution wasn’t going to spread throughout Europe, the Soviet Union turn to Eur-Asia and foment revolution as an attack on colonialism. He goes through the -stans, and Russian involvement, and interestingly spends quite some time on Georgia, where the Mensheviks had been very strong. (I watched a Foreign Correspondent program last night about how, since the Ukrainian invasion, many Russian dissidents have gone to Georgia where the people have no great love for Russia, although their government in ambivalent). As Duncan says, 1921 is almost a potted summary of the whole revolution (and it saves you listening to the 94 preceding episodes)

Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent

Start the Week (BBC) An interesting episode in The Age of the Strongman Leader, featuring Gideon Rachman, author of The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, Judy Dempsey who has written a lot on Angela Merkel, and Christopher de Bellaigue, author of The Lion House: The Coming of a King about Suleiman the Magnificent. This last title might seem a bit out of place, but this discussion talks about the phenomenon of the ‘strongman’ across history. One of them (Rachman?- the two male voices were similar) identified four qualities of the strongman 1. Cult of personality 2. Nostalgic nationalism, looking backwards 3. Contempt for the rule of law (although at first, they might have championed the rule of law to obtain power, but then subverted it) 4. Gender- mainly men. Merkel doesn’t fit this pattern, but other powerful women in politics are often the wives or daughters of strongmen. The modern strongmen they discuss use the democratic system, but then subvert it by encouraging polarization. The use of history by these strongmen is selective- for example, in December 2021 Putin’s courts put an end to the Memorial Project which documented the atrocities of the Stalin era. They also spoke about the strongmens’ need for large rallies – and no doubt May 9 will be such an occasion for Putin this year.