Sunday, August 31, 2008

Duffy, charity, the strike and the Fairfax Mean Machine

This week we have to turn to a disaster for Sydneysiders, which verges on a catastrophe for the nation, a concern for the world and a worry for the galaxy.

The Fairfax press is in complete disarray. Hundreds are being sacked, the editor of The Age has been terminated, the remaining journalists at time of writing are out on strike, and when columnist Mike Carlton refused to cross the picket line with copy, he too was terminated. Management are eager to demonstrate that you don't need journalists to publish a huge paper full of advertisements, and have succeeded admirably in that task, while degutting the paper to even more monstrous levels of tedium and second rate hackery.

In Carlton's place, the esteemed management editors managed to mount a column by Miranda Devine, a woman with the inclinations of Ann Coulter but without the brains or the looks, a woman so devoid of intellect or ideas she makes Canberra writer Angela Shanahan's dedication to the family seem like an idea fixee worthy of Wittgenstein. Devine is a regular at other times during the week in the Herald, but her presence has now infected the Saturday edition in way which can only be compared to the spread of the black plague amongst intellectuals in medieval times (it was a tough choice as to whether to dedicate a blog to Duffy or Devine, but in the end Duffy has neuroses, Devine not a single vital sign of intellectual or mental life).

The resulting turmoil has created confusion and despair amongst ABC listeners, and loyal Granny readers, who are canceling their subscriptions, or at least threatening to. Now as someone who once crossed the picket lines regularly as a contributor during the good old days of an AJA strike (which aimed at keeping contributors out of journalism), it's hard to keep a righteous stance during the current crisis.

But by sacking Carlton - one of the few columnists who actually contributed amusing copy - for what was an exceptionally minor display of loyalty to his fellow workers, the current management have simply gone too far. Yes it's true Carlton is a rah rah union bugger boy with Eastern suburbs manners and mildly socialist leanings, but even if only for his constant caricaturing of Lord Downer he deserves a knighthood. The man writes funny, and in a newspaper where dullness and mediocrity is the measure, his column was one of the few 'turn to' parts of the paper when downing bacon and eggs and wit for breakfast.

Accordingly it's impossible for this blog to suggest you buy the newspaper to keep up your unfailing anger with Michael Duffy, an amusing posture until the chips are actually down. Nor will we link to Duffy's latest article, for fear that the one stray reader this blog might attract, will in fact click through and thereby somehow bestow support on the current evil regime. From now on there can be no more click throughs, no more physical consumption. Darth Vader has taken charge of the building, and the likes of Duffy are his minions.

Fortunately Duffy's column, entitled "From humble beginnings, a special business breaks down barriers", is an exceptionally stupefying, dull and ponderous pontification on a charity, Cumberland Industries, the  kind of overweening rant we usually have to suffer from Phillip Adams on radio when he gets to talking about his favourite charity for kids.

It's positioned next to an article by Iemma, call me Maurice, the Premier of NSW, on how the power of one treacherous leader sold out the people of NSW, a piece of picket-breaking scabbery worthy of a Labor premier whose name will soon be consigned to the dustbins of dull backyard state political history, about the way he got dudded by opposition leader Barry O'Farrell.

Sadly it's the last time we will be able to comment on Duffy's physical position in the Saturday paper, because like many other citizens we will be boycotting the actual purchase of the Herald, until such time as Carlton returns or hell freezes over (a metaphysical metaphor Christians will understand as meaning until some time in the future when a mythical place refutes global warming and becomes a place in which alcohol can be safely stored for the Devil's ongoing party on dude).

Viewers of the fifth season of The Wire will have already caught up with what is actually going on here. As readers desert, and the business model changes, the Herald is going through the same turmoil as the Baltimore Sun - we must do more with less cry the managers, as they rort the system, pay themselves ever larger cuts of the operating costs, and lash the poor old wordsmiths with cries of poverty.

Perhaps it's worth briefly noting that Duffy's column is such a dull read because of the way it reveals Duffy's internationalist, cosmopolitanist outlook. Duffy is most excited by Cumberland Industries, not so much because of the way it shackles disabled and intellectually retarded people to the workplace, and makes a substantial profit out of them, but because visiting it took him into the bizarre world of Auburn. 

This allows Duffy to rattle off mentions of a Dubai sheik, and people chatting in Arabic, and 10,000 Indian meals a day, and business models, and most remarkably the fact that the charity is just down the road from the big Gallipoli mosque in Auburn. Indeed Duffy notes that the Auburn factory of the charity has the best view of Auburn, splendid vista that it is, a view which even includes a view of the mosque.

Duffy is almost ecstatic at his incredible bravery at visiting such a place or that it should exist, deep in the heart of the West. He's been amongst the Islamics and survived to tell the tale! Brave prince of strike breaking columnists. Well, we always said he should get out more, and he does get so very heart palpitatingly excited when he does, so perhaps we will see more stories from Sydney's western heartland, Duffy in flak jacket reporting from the front line on the curious ways of western dwellers.

Unfortunately we will only be accessing such meandering commentaries by way of borrowing or stealing a Herald, perhaps one a strike breaker has left on the train from a daily commute, handing on the contraband so the current bandits in charge of the Herald (living in the Eastern suburbs in the Fairfax way) don't profit that much from the initial purchase. Recycle and repent and save.

It's going to be a bleak life, deprived of quick easy Duffy fixes, having to scrounge for his pearls of wisdom, but that's the way it's going to have to be. The death of a newspaper by a thousand cuts, the death of a sense  of humor by terminating Carlton, has to be more significant than the outpourings of one dull, mediocre columnist.

We are now left with Duffy, Morris Iemma, and Miranda Devine as our intellectual food for the week (along with a guest piece  by Naomi Wolf celebrating in typically perverse fashion the role of veiling in the Muslim world, which you could read online at The Sunday Times or in a dozen Islamic blogs who seize on this kind of nonsense as a justification for their persecution of women - can we look forward the veiling of Wolf, and her shutting up?). 

Meantime, the Herald is dead, its online presence a down market tabloid little better than the Murdoch rag the Daily Telepgraph, and its real world presence stumbling towards oblivion. Remember Sydney already has Mx, we have no need of Devine or Duffy. 

Perhaps a few readers weakened so they could get the freebie DVD disc 'Century of Pictures' - and we can forgive the jackdaw and the magpie for picking up such glittering trinkets, even if they're flung aside, in the 'to be watched but never will be' pile of detritus marked newspaper giveaways. But no more, no cheap easy bribery, let the Sydney Morning Herald boycott begin.

Roll on reading online the works of real minds at real papers in other parts of the world, and brooding on the Yeats' poem "The Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a mark of mourning, we have abstained from rating Duffy's column, beyond ascribing it a standard level of mediocrity. The real question is, will the Herald join the Baltimore Sun as being amongst the worst papers in the world?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Duffy as Political Reformer and Iemma lover

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)", said Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, and you get the sense from reading Michael Duffy that he's always feeling Whitmanesque, since contradictions are the essence of the Duffy world view.

If he's not arguing the need for more freeways because it saves on greenhouse gases - even if he thinks there's no real cause for concern about the world or greenhouse gases - then he's arguing that the more choice the Internet offers, the less useful it is to our herd mentality.

Such is his multitudinous manner that this week the Duffy manages, in his column "Iemma stokes the glimmer of greatness in Wollongong's ashes" to affiliate himself with both the eccentricities of the Greens and that most disliked politician of the moment, Premier of NSW, Morris Iemma, who is leading the Labor Party to a landslide thrashing at the next election by a band of Liberals nobody likes much but who provide the only alternative.

What brings Duffy to these strange bedfellows? Well both are pushing along the notion of shifting the political system from donations to having a full public funding for political campaigns (and we know why that's so dear to the Greens, though Duffy doesn't care to mention this or give any thought to it).

Iemma is proposing to roll out the recommendations of the Nile report, based on the Canadian system, in two phases - first for councils, and then in relation to the state, prior to the next state election.

Yep, suddenly the Duffy has not only gone green, he's gone socialist. From his vision of a world supposedly better off with modest government, and the private sector in charge (especially when it comes to public transport), Duffy suddenly believes that increased government funding, and government intervention, will lead to better things. Well there's a lay down misere libertarian position for you - "increased public funding is the price we will have to pay for a cleaner democracy".

Moreover, and here's the killer: "Iemma's behaviour on this matter has been consistent and admirable. If this continues he could become, to the surprise of many people possibly including himself, one of Australia's great political reformers".

Yep, suddenly Iemma is coated in glory because he's going to embrace a system that will see the public gouged even more so that politicians can prance and preen during an election campaign on the public's purse. Well as the Dodo said, everybody has won and all must have prizes.

But Duffy's analysis is superficial, as would be any reform if it's not done boots and all. Let's think here about the aim - a kind of salary cap for political campaigning (and we know how well the salary cap has worked for rugby league, don't we). But thus far politicians have been adept at finding money to spend in all kinds of ways - the standard one being the use of government funds to promote government programs which coincidentally and obliquely promote the incumbent government. The Howard government carried this form of advertising/nee political campaigning to a nauseating extreme (perhaps to the point where there was a backlash as the gap between the message and the reality became obvious) but state governments do it all the time, never mind if there's auditors and a two month lay off before the elections.

But now more important is third party advertising, which is rapidly turning into swift boating Australian style. The union movement was the face of third party advertising on the federal scene in the last election, and their campaign on Work Choices blew away both the Liberal party's response and a hastily organised, poorly considered and implemented response from the big end of town (from which more than a few big enders abstained).

How do you stop this kind of advertising by third party/proxy? To do so would inevitably involve considerations in relation to free speech. It's surely appropriate for people and organisations to declare their allegiances and their support for political groups, provided they say who they are and who is responsible for the editorial content.

Way back when, Hawke and the gang - with the opposition agin it - wanted to restrict political advertising in election campaigns, but after thoroughly examining the Constitution and finding no mention of it, the High Court took on itself the right to discover an "implied" right to freedom of political expression.

So you can say what you think, and support whom you like. The activist judges said so, and the Liberals applauded them for being so activist. As a result, it's likely that campaigns will skew this way more and more, especially if the politicians can in the meantime loot the public till of the necessary millions for their formal campaign. Duffy blithely notes that at the last state election the parties spent $36.4 million and $11.78 million kicked back to them, as well as receiving another $6.65 million over the previous four years from the public purse for 'political education'. Duffy blithely expects a debate as to how much these amounts should be increased.

But why should there be an increase? Why not say the major parties get five million each, leaving the rest for whatever minor parties can get their shit together to squabble over the rest, Pauline Hanson style? Well of course that's naive and foolish and it will never fly. Politicians are clever people, and their minders even more clever. Their aim is power, and whatever they need to do to get that power. And if that means money, then money, by hook or by crook, they will have. 

And when in power, they take care of themselves and whatever will be likely to keep them in power. Don't worry about it Jake, it's Macquarie street.

But Duffy worries, because Duffy is a worrier. He worries about the way Labor might have an advantage over the Coalition because of its links with the unions, but that's the least of the worries associated with any reform (especially at the moment when Iemma is so on the nose with unions, unionists and the Labor party faithful). Why are the unions so significant? Nobody's joining, they've lost their clout to the extent that even Iemma is emboldened to ignore them. Ah, but they did do an effective Federal campaign, which the Duffy-endorsed Nile proposals will do nothing to stop.

Duffy doesn't worry about Liberals from the big end of town kicking in to support the Liberals, probably because the gentle folk of Ku-ring-gai couldn't organise an unseemly savage attacdk ad campaign to save their lives, let alone save themselves from the big end of town, or from developers, or from the newly rich Chinese folk wanting to live in their leafy suburbs. 

Sadly it seems all the big end wants is someone who can manage the state in reasonable style, and know the Liberals offer as little vision as the Labor party. 

Why has it come to this? As Duffy notes, the reason for all the handwringing is that in the past Australians joined political parties in large numbers and paid fees that supported those parties - but it should also be said that in the past the fees didn't support the campaigns, as there was always a little bit of stumping up by true blue loyalists when the antagonists got into the ring every three years or so.

The real problem for Duffy - the bear in the room so potent that Duffy dare not speak its name, except in his references to the scandal of Wollongong - is Duffy's long standing, deeply neurotic fear and loathing for developers and their capacity to tweak the ear of politicians by offering money and support.

But this relationship goes back generations - I can remember a mayor in the town in which I grew up who just happened to be a real estate agent, who somehow managed to buy up in an area where the council just happened to be zoning. He retired a multi millionaire, in much the same way as a government minister in South Australia - nice chap, off to the opera each year in Paris - managed to mint money by seeming to know where the government might like to build some freeways.

What effect will the kind of campaign reform being promoted have on the likes of the Wollongong scandal, or the other innumerable examples that can be offered of politicians getting too close to people with the power, the money or the influence to beguile them? What impact will this kind of campaign reform have on those other shadowy players, the fundamentalist Christians, who have had excessive influence in the state Liberal party these last few years, and whose siren song distracted Howard when he should have been returning to the centre?

The answer is bugger all. The scandals will continue, and there will be fresh ones - such as the scandal surrounding Pauline Hanson's returns from the federal system - as politicians discover another publicly funded trough into which they can dip their snouts. While at the same time third party advertising will blossom like a thousand flowers.

Now there's no point in wringing hands and saying there's no point in doing anything, because corruption will always win. But there's also a reason for ongoing concern when someone like Duffy wholeheartedly embraces public funding as the solution.

As proposed, the legislation will be half baked and half arsed, and any decent political spiv will be able to drive a cement mixer through the loopholes, fill it up with electioneering money, and make off like a bandit who got the idea by watching lottery advertising.

The day Iemma goes down in history as one of Australia's great political reformers is the day he leads his party to defeat. In the meantime, it will undoubtedly be a step forward if politicians no longer follow that great and fearless state premier Robin Askin, who liked his donations to come in brown paper bags, and in unmarked bills, circulated, in small denominations since you're asking.

But we're not talking about corruption here - of the kind which led to the Wollongong scandal, corruption pure and simple, and ongoing since Eve took a bite of the apple (or so the fundamentalists would have us believe). We're talking about structural renovation which somehow will stop politicians and their minders from being political and being - like moths to the flame - a lure for all kinds of people anxious to bend their power to private benefit.

Dream on Duffy, and forget your libertarian aspirations. You might contain multitudes, but expecting increased government funding of the kind proposed by the enfeebled Nile Report to be the solution is as silly as those wet folk who think governments can turn back the tide of development as we pursue our relentless love of growth and consumerism. I guess the only joy in your column is the way you manage to align yourself with the Greens and with Morris, to the consternation of your ideologically inclined followers. I guess the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter has aligned with Mars.

Now here's a bet - stay tuned next week for a Duffy rant on how people demanding bigger government or more government funding for some pet hobby horse are deluded. Walt Whitman lives.

So the week's scorecard:

Contribution to the debate on political reform: 2
Useful advice on how to contain politicians: 1
Eccentric enthusiasm for strange bedfellows: 9
Willingness to empty the public purse: 10
Neurotic fixation on developers: 9
Contradictory positions on government spending: 8

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Duffy Hits the Orbital Freeway

Based on internal evidence in the latest Michael Duffy column, "Orbital is the way to go for diverse transport needs", in that organ for intellectual discussion, The Sydney Morning Herald, Duffy seems to live on the eastern fringe of the city ("Those who live on the eastern fringe of the city can easily miss the great changes taking place in the west", "In the east we often hear there is no point in building more roads, because they will quickly fill up and become congested", "The idea of the west as an employment wasteland is still prevalent among easterners"). 

By golly, it sounds like Kafka's The Great Wall of China, where people are so removed from the centre of the universe (the Forbidden City or the eastern suburbs, no matter) that it takes on all the qualities of a fable or a fairy story. The remote, the forbidding, the motorway-striated west, where rumors and half truths abound, which easterners can only imagine or comprehend with the help of a Duffy. There be dragons of course and swamplands and strange people who drive large cars, but Duffy knows the truth and can bring back insights to the easterners trapped by their sophisticated merchant banker ways.

If this is the case, it explains much about Duffy, and the way he can pontificate about the west from the safety of the east, why he can yearn for the suburbia of Kellyville, and defend it against latte sipping chardonnay slurping lefties, while perhaps indulging in a little quaffing on the side.

It also explains why he can contemplate the tearing up of the city to put in more freeways (nee motorways). Let's not get into whether we've reached a tipping point on petrol, let's not get into anxieties about how far away alternative, viable fuels or mechanisms are for personal transport, let's just contemplate the kind of city Duffy is urging on his fellow dwellers from the safety of the eastern suburbs goat tracks that provide chicanes for the Mercedes lover.

What he wants is Los Angeles. Never mind that Los Angeles has all the freeways he prescribes for Sydney, and now hits gridlock in ways that are unimaginable. Of course out of peak hours LA is bliss for the driver - fast, quick, easy to commute from one end of the city to another if you don't mind cruising for hours through urban sprawl. But in peak hours ... it's a reminder of what happens when cars devour a city's soul.

Dffuy doesn't worry about any of this. He's just pleased at the economic benefits - built by the private sector, and funded by tolls. Well he would be and so would his mates at Macquarie. Clip the sheep as they get on to the toll way, then clip the sheep as they get off again. The more sheep herded on to the ramp, the better. Pen them in, try not to cut them too much, and if they squeal, throw on a little tar. They'll be back on the ramp soon enough. Duffy is just a little too free with his interchangeable use of freeways (no toll) and motorways. If he talked to his fabled westerners, he'd quickly learn how much they love being clipped for tolls on a daily basis, and how they enjoyed the freedom of the motorway for a price.

But nothing of this gives Duffy any concern, such are the wonders of having an orbital motorway circulating the outer west (actually built and working, "unlike most of this city's public transport fantasies"). It seems the road is worth billions to the city (or so Duffy quotes an Ernst & Young report) and all because it saves time, and stimulates commercial building and helps grow vast industrial areas.

But wait, wasn't Duffy only a few weeks ago bemoaning immigration and worrying about growth and the impact it was having on the country. Here he's celebrating growth and urging more freeways as if all that was a whim now easily forgotten. And vast industrial estates. But where will the workers come from if we don't encourage immigration? And how will we pack the rats in if we don't indulge in a bit of urban consolidation? Heresy. Cast those thoughts out, for surely the Lord or maybe Hillsong will provide. Every man his own quarter acre, and his own car, and freeways (make that motorways) to the end of the earth, or at least every hundred yards in the Sydney basin. 

Duffy celebrates the way Westlink reckons it's saving greenhouse gases (yep the more you drive the less gas you generate through efficiencies, but what about totals, not relative savings? If you drive more and more, don't you use up all the gas you save, by getting out and driving more?What's the incentive not to drive on these marvelous freeways?) And then there's the fuel savings. Drive all day and you can do it with real savings. Not to mention savings in maintenance costs and numbers of accidents.

Never mind those wacky pile ups or massive disruptions when a dozen fast moving cars decide to collide. Gazelles get used to losing a few of the herd to the big cats, and so must the urban motorist.

Is there nothing a freeway can't do? (Well the signs did help Steve Martin's love life). But what's this we hear about freeways quickly filling up and becoming congested. Tosh, a minor problem.
"Of course, they will fill up eventually, just like many services do. Hospitals fill up, too, but this is never used as an argument not to build more of them".

So let's keep building. But wait, why are we worrying about greenhouse gases? Duffy is a climate change sceptic. Who cares if we save a bit of CO2. Who cares if we save fuel. Within a few years we'll all be in hydrogen powered people movers.

So where is the neurotic centre in this column? The heart of the problem? Deep down it's clear Duffy hates public transport. He probably had a bad experience on a bus, or is deeply allergic to the filth and the common herd visible on trains. You see on a motorway a man with toll money can be a man, roam where he will in his car, go to work wherever he likes, reap untold benefits, and escape the lot of the salary man forced to endure along with his fellow rats as they shuffle on and off public transport.

Duffy doesn't really contemplate how much more sensible it might have been to create orbital public transport links - something the government has failed to do, just as it has failed to provide any sensible transport alternatives to motorways (not freeways, where the public benefits from toll-free travel). Getting around the west at the moment presents a jumble of ill integrated options. If, as Duffy argues, the idea of shipping people into the city is no longer meaningful, and makes the north west metro an ill conceived idea, then why not alternative forms of public transport that can efficiently ship people between large population points.

But Duffy isn't really wanting to fix the gridlock that is already apparent every day on Sydney's roads - try driving down Victoria road during prime time, and see what the viewing is like. He just wants to shove it up the cognoscenti who carry on about public transport when motorways are an economic miracle, as well as making a tremendous difference to the lives of thousands of Sydneysiders. 

Forget any talk of increasing density to cope with projections in population increases - with a car and a motorway a man can make it from Penrith to Hornsby in a Hummer in less than an hour, and bank the savings in petrol and car maintenance. It's the Arnold Schwarzenegger solution, as opposed to the nonsense Democrats like Michael Dukakis write. Like this:

If there's one thing we have learned ever since California and the nation decided to pour nearly a trillion dollars into their highway systems, it is that the number of cars always increases to fill new highways. The end result: more highway gridlock, more road rage.

You can see how this comes about. To express solidarity with the common man, Duffy likes to take trips out to Blacktown, Kellyville and surrounding parts, to experience the joys of suburban living for a day, then returns to the safety of his eastern suburbs lifestyle knowing that the common herd is being well tended by a State Government disgracefully reviled for making roads work and not worrying too much about public transport. He sees the marvels of motorways, he sees the wonders of private cars, but you suspect he hasn't experienced on a daily basis the costs of travel - especially if you commute some distance to work - which people experience on a daily basis in the remote west.

Well consistency has never been one of Duffy's strengths, and urban planning requires some logical and coherent insights, which escape him as well as the state government. That's how they managed to scrap the Parramatta to Chatswood link,  and came up with the wretched North West Metro scheme. (The Chatswood connection would have been the first heavy rail initiative of any significance since the 1920's).

There are cities and experts who know how these things might be done. Just not in the purview of Iemma, Duffy and Costa (now there's an unholy trinity).  I guess we will have to wait and see how those westerners, driving free like a man should, will feel the time the next oil scare comes along, and the concomitant increase in prices sends them into a meltdown. Right now, things are back to normal. Petrol prices are easing, and all is bliss in the motorway laden world of the Duffy. Time to start carving up the city with a new round of road building so the sheep can be herded through the tolls and Duffy's mates can shout themselves a good round of vintage port (maybe a Hardy's '53?)

That said, it's a disappointing column this week, predictable and light weight. Duffy really needs to do a bit more leg work if he wants to tweak peoples' noses by saying we need to build more motorways, from the vantage point of a relatively stable part of the city where Nimbyism ensures that roads will stay relatively low key and clogged. 

While all his disparate, incoherent positions and neuroses are on view, and his assumption that people are only just discovering orbital connectivity is news to them as well as to him, he needs to do more if his desire to shock is going to get him somewhere. Praising the State Government, rabbiting on about the joys of freeways while demanding more motorways, arguing for the joys of a toll network as opposed to freeways ... it's all too easy, and too silly.

If there was any justice in the world, Duffy would be shipped to LA for a year's driving on freeways, and then shipped out to Sydney's west for a year's commuting on motorways. It'd be sweet to hear what he thought about spending a couple of hours a day in a car while forking out for petrol and for tolls.

So to the week's scoring:

Understanding of urban planning needs: 1
Understanding of benefits of public transport: 0
Actual experience of urban reality as opposed to economic dry reports: 1
Confusing of freeways with motorways: 8
Use of specious arguments linking motorways to hospitals: 10
Neuroses on display re westerners, public transport and urban consolidation: 10
Love of big business shearing sheep on a daily basis: 10

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Duffy and the Vanilla Internet

Perhaps 'iconoclast' is the best way to describe the Duffy view of the world. If we take a conventional definition, an iconoclast can be:

1. A breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.
2. A person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions and so on, as being based on error or superstition.

Well we can ignore the origins of the word - Duffy's forefathers might have been active in the eighth and ninth centuries destroying religious images felt to be idolatrous, but it's hard to pin anything on him directly.

Yet it's not hard to think Duffy fancies himself as a destroyer of images and beliefs, a one man terminator amok in the temple of left wingers and liberals.

The smashing and the breaking and the vandalizing in his writing helps explain why Duffy lashes out rhetorically against all kinds of false gods and false images. And happily iconoclasm requires no coherent positives or  positions, just oppositional negativity, the destruction of false worshippers.

This week's Duffy musings "All those fabulous flavours, yet the world keeps choosing vanilla" is a classic bout of iconoclasm. The text requires careful deconstruction (a word Duffy would hate) because Duffy takes on the Internet, perhaps feeling empowered by his new status running a blog under the Sydney Morning Herald's banner.

First the straw dog. Believers in the Internet - those involved with technology and culture - have tended to be optimistic in seeing it as a force for increased diversity. Then Duffy rather fatuously and glibly attempts a summary of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, in a couple of lines, suggesting that Anderson argues for widening diversity of cultural experiences (when a lot of it is about selling and marketing and intellectual property in the kind of self help guru style Americans love - go here if you want to find out what Anderson's really saying).

Duffy seems to put himself in the position of a cultural snob when he suggests "One reason the idea was embraced was that it was very appealing to anyone who has ever resented the slop that makes up a lot of popular culture". But before you can tag him as a chardonnay drinker, he moves quickly to reassure us that he played rock music in the seventies (get down, I'm jiggy wit it), and back then it was impossible to buy recordings of most of the music of the sixties. (Just what planet Duffy was on when he found all sixties music had disappeared is a matter for speculation, but no matter, let's just go with the flow. Maybe he was looking for Charlie Musselwhite).

Anyway, Duffy desperately wants to believe in Anderson, wants to believe that our world of prosperity and free trade and globalization and technological wonder was also creating a cultural wonderland. But no, the iconoclast always finds a fly in the ointment, and this time it's Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School associate professor, who tested Anderson's hypothesis by looking at sales patterns for dvds, videos and music. Surprise, surprise, she found that most people tend to buy mainstream product. Lordy lordy, that must mean the new Batman movie is a hit because a lot of people are buying tickets to watch it. Who'd have guessed it, thank heaven for the power of the academy.

By the time Duffy had hit print with his column on August 8th on this topic, Anderson had long before responded to the article on June 27th, and Elberse had posted a response to him on July 2nd (Google it, ain't the Internet just wonderful). Both the response and counter-response are more insightful than Duffy, and they hit the ether a hell of a lot earlier.

Now here's where Duffy goes out on a self-invented limb. He thinks the problem is that Anderson mistook production for consumption, and argues that when presented with an abundance to choose from, customers all pick the same thing (basing his line on a 1995 book The Winner-Take-All Society). It seems that the Internet, while presenting us with choice, is also performing "some sort 'shepherding function' by giving us a better sense than was available in the past of the choices other people are making. And we react to this type of information not by forging our own paths, but by going with the crowd. This paradox, of convergence in the midst of abundance, is one of the phenomena of our world ..."

Well there goes the Internet. It offers us all this choice, and like sheep we just sit in the corner under the tree together soaking up the shade. Stupid sheep.

Pardon me if I mention the elephant in the room. Piracy. Just last week someone I know downloaded an obscure zombie picture made in Western Australia in 1989. It cost them nothing. It came about because one person thought to turn it into an avi file and put it up on the web; and in doing so she found one person interested in downloading it. That's all it takes. A one on one cultural exchange. She didn't expect millions to watch it, and if you're aware of the film in question, I marvel that she expected even one person to download it (and yes, it's out of print, commercially unavailable and all in the aim of research and science, and it's slop, and you must be Duffy to think this is a rare event).

Now the good professor constructs her argument against Anderson on the basis of data from Nielsen and from Quickflix. And if you stay on the vanilla path, and buy your goods, then you are one of the sheep. But you are not one of the millions doing what the Internet allows you to do - get your content for free (and no I don't mean going to Project Gutenberg and getting a free ebook or the Internet Archive for a PD show from the twenties). In fact Anderson's arguments are insular and bound up with American culture, and struggle to be applicable in markets outside America, especially in relation to intellectual property competing in domains dominated by American product, but that's another story.

The simplest survey of content made available on the Internet would conclude that it is now huge - beyond the level of comprehension and tracking  - and continuing to grow. And anybody with a half decent awareness of marketing would know that when confronted with infinite shelf space, we tend to revert to things we know and like, or things our friends like and recommend (where would the movies be without word of mouth, now complemented by Internet viral awareness). You could waste a lifetime just looking for things you might like.

It's always been the case that branding, and logos and tags and identifiers have been a key part of marketing - that's how a brand like the New York Times still gets attention paid to it, old media still poncing about on the new, just by putting on some new feathers and being there.

Now this is an interesting topic, and it exercises a lot of people's minds. After all, Amazon is not much more than a decade old, eBay not very old at all (remembering that direct selling goes back, way way back), and yet it's had a serious impact on shopfront selling, just as piracy has given the music business the jitters, and is about to give the film game serious indigestion. Free to air, pay, print newspapers, all kinds of information services and entertainment providers will have to look anew at their business models. Yet you can wander down the street and find plenty of Luddites who have yet to order anything from Amazon (thank the Lord a reality for Australians now we're no longer fifty cents in the dollar) or bought anything on eBay. But does this mean this new form of selling is just providing more of the same, say comparing my local dvd store catering to thirty thousand suburban dwellers to the thousands upon thousands of items available in a marketplace of 300 million consumers and now accessible anywhere in the world?

But Duffy really isn't interested in all that, and truth to tell, one suspects on reading him that he's not really that interested in the Internet and all that it offers now and might offer in the future. No, Duffy is just using all this as a set up for a bit of liberal bashing, without the need of facts getting in his way. First up is the futility of tourism:

"Increased mobility was supposed to enable us to experience a diversity of other types of human beings. But in reality it is used to travel halfway around the globe and spend time with people like ourselves."  I guess the new tendency to use the Internet to book cheap airline tickets must take a share of the blame for all those Pommie chicks having hen nights in Barcelona while the guys chew the magic mushrooms in Amsterdam. Yes, it's you he's talking about, you Pommie bastards.

But worse still are those damned professionals. "Most professional Australians today are more at home with foreign professionals than fellow Australians of another class." Say what? What's this got to do with the Internet? But when you think about it, could it be a cry for help? Is what Duffy really saying is that as a professional - well he's a public broadcaster and a newspaper columnist, so it's likely he wasn't working as a builder's labourer last week - he connects more with foreign professionals than he does with rough, hairy, beefy chaps who hang around the pubs, sink a schooner or two, then down a dog's eye with dead horse (Google it up, let the Internet enrich your cultural understanding of Australian slang, it'll only take a few seconds).

Perhaps he yearns for discourse with Anita Elberse, and the Harvard Business Review and respectable conservatives from various American think tanks, rather than following the course of common humanity - of people from another class. After all, we already know that what they like as popular culture is just slop, beneath the dignity of an old rock 'n roller. One thing's certain - Duffy wouldn't have cruising the Internet trying to dig up some fodder for his column, and stumbled on this month-old chestnut, would he? No way. 

Relax already. Duffy's not having an existential crisis. There's a greater insight on offer:

"This is one reason it's so hard to get Australian-born doctors to move to country towns any more." You see - that's it. Like those gits on the Internet, doctors (the Australian born ones, the ones with the silver spoons shoved up their arse) don't want to move to the country because they don't like the common herd, they don't like people of the lower classes. You hear that, you country folk, we don't like living with the likes of you because you're common muck, covered in pig shit most likely. 

Okay, it's mind numbingly confused and illogical and simple minded, but it does illustrate a profound neurosis Duffy has, about his relationship to the world and to class and to professionals and most particularly to fellow Australians of another class (only somebody aspiring to Turramurra or an ex-Marxist could come up with that phrase 'of another class' - my good fellow, I can't like you, because you see, you'se is from another class). 

But at least now we understand why Duffy's one hour radio show is littered with music from the thirties of the coy, lizardy jitterbuggy kind, unless it's varied a little with a jocular song allegedly about how liberals should give up drinking wine (Buddy Stay Off the Wine, by Betty Hall Jones which Bob Dylan ran on his theme time radio hour and was then picked up here by student and community radio, like RRR - does this make Duffy a fellow traveller with students, perhaps even a covert subversive?). 

Nonsense. He's just apart from the herd, relishing his own unique cultural path, insulated from all  that modern slop. They stopped making good music in the thirties, and by the seventies you couldn't buy any of it, and that's all there is to say.

As for the logic ... what a pity Duffy didn't read Chris Anderson's recent note when he wrote about thirteen words that lose their meaning when the denominator approaches infinity - citing five key words that he found meaningless, starting with "Most" at number one (average, typical, all, and none/no made up the other four in the top five).

But Duffy commits  many kinds of sins against logic. "Increased mobility was supposed to ..." But who said, who supposed? Duffy? "In reality it (mobility) is used ..." but by whom? Don't plumbers have the right to be tourists?  "... to travel halfway around the globe and spend time with people like ourselves ..." But who are these people like ourselves? Doctors who hate the country? Conservatives who hate liberals? Columnists who talk to columnists? Or columnists who treat all the people they meet as waiters and desk clerks? Wine-makers who make wine?Or wine-makers who get drunk in Barcelona and piss on stray Catalans? Or is that rugby league footballers? But don't they go to France to play Rugby Union. Which is definitely not league. It's all too confusing.

And then comes that word, 'most', as in: "Most professionals today ..." But where's the survey, the statistical data that backs this claim. Forget it Jake, it's Duffy town. Statistics are just damn lies, and not worth a pinch of shit up against intuitive insights.

As for doctors heading bush, dare I say that it might be as simple as the reason Sydney Morning Herald columnists and public broadcasters don't head bush. They don't like it. But then maybe Duffy's never actually lived in a country town. He should try it some time. He mightn't be able to afford his current airs and graces and confusions. They sort you out quick in the bush, especially if you sound like a wanker.

Sadly, poor old Duffy has to end on a truly destructive note. It seems all this behavior is instinctive - this slop, this lack of diversity, this failure to use the Internet, this going with the crowd, this misuse of mobility, this feeling at home with foreigners, this hatred of the bush. Yep, it's because we were 'hard wired this way during our evolution'. Duffy's identified the gene. It's going to be called "Duffy blood group, chemokine receptor FZ". Now there's knockdown science for you. No generalizations, pure scientific fact. 

Oh wait, it's 'only a possible explanation for the paradox'. Good scientist that he is, Duffy is still researching the situation. Postulate a theory, then back it up with good hard empirical, replicable evidence. It's the Duffy way. Meantime, you can write it up to scare us all with the way we're hard wired to show herd like behavior. Could this, gulp, even explain why we all rush off to war and kill people? 

Suddenly the meaning of the header for Duffy's article becomes clear. Out there on the Internet, there are all these fabulous flavours. Yet the SMH keeps printing, and Sydney-siders - well, at least some of them - keep reading Duffy. In all his iconoclastic vanilla glory. In hard copy. Note to self: must go to Crooks and Liars to watch a Colbert clip, expecting tradesman in the morning, it's all too much. He'll expect coffee ... goddam these workers, don't they know their place any more.

So it's on to the rating:

Insight into the functioning of the Internet: 1
Reliable and prompt use of Internet sources: 2
Understanding of herd mentality: 1
Understanding of marketing: 0
Confessional quality regarding alienation from the masses: 10
Resentment of popular slop and Australian-born doctors: 10
Dislike of fellow professionals and foreign professionals: 10
Insight into Duffy neuroses: 10

An exemplary column, rich in pickings.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Duffy and the Ku-ring-gai Liberal Nimby elite

Is perversity enough? Does sheer contrariness constitute a philosophy, or even a sufficient moral and ethical basis for an argument, and more to the point, since we are talking Michael Duffy, for a decent newspaper column?

Duffy is very much of the school of agin it. You could imagine a wet droopy socialist walking through the Duffy door and asking the Duff what he's rebelling against. Duffy would give the hapless doughnut an icy stare, and say what have you got?

There's a quiet satisfaction to be found in giving school teachers and do gooders and lefties and greens a sound birching, warming up their brains with a lashing of common sense that only neocons and pie eating workers can understand and share.

That's why Duffy's latest thoughts confound yet again - as in his article "Democracy that leaves people's views out of the equation"  - he takes up the cudgels on behalf of rich long-suffering Liberals centered in that peculiar northern Sydney collection of wealthy suburbs dubbed Ku-ring-gai. It seems Duffy is actually a green, a conservationist, and his concern is for biodiversity, and that rarest of marsupials, one that is often threatened with extinction, the dinner-suited albino company director.

Duffy is troubled - it seems that 53 cranes are working away on $1.75 billion worth of new apartment blocks for the municipality, producing three thousand flats and perhaps - thinking two persons a flat - perhaps six thousand rats fleeing like vermin from the inner and outer west to nest in the leafy northern suburbs.

There's an explanation of course - a Labor government created juggernaut, "fuelled by developer donations with a tinge of class hatred, is rolling through the Liberal heartland". 

The valiant council opposed the assault for years, but then evil Frank Sartor took away its planning powers and gave them to a panel. "Now, along the railway in suburbs such as Killara and Lindfield, five-storey concrete boxes rise from the fertile soil".

Have you ever read such rhetoric - the 'fertile soil' trapped beneath concrete boxes (nothing but acres and acres of tar and cement) and all tinged by class hated. For you see, this is all to do with the liveability of the city, by which the good burgers mean their liveability.  Duffy (though  he hastens to add that he doesn't live in Ku-ring-gai 'and don't aspire to') loves the fact that the place exists, with its trees and gardens and big Federation houses, providing diversity in the city, and above all a place where the well-off and the wealthy can retire to after a hard day ripping the guts out the working class without being reminded of their awkward presence in developer-provided squats even a battery hen would consider low rent.

Next thing you know the upper north is going to look just the same as Kogarah or Rouse Hill - never mind that Rouse Hill doesn't look anything like Kogarah, the point is clear enough - those places are full of dreadful working class people, yabbering in tongues, and carpeted in concrete boxes so the rats can nest and lead their dull creepy working class lives without the sight of the rich. 

"Soon you'll be able to get off the train at Turramurra and it will look just the same as Kogarah or Rouse Hill. That might be someone's dream, but it's not mine", opines Duffy.

Weep in despair, you spiritually connected to the land children of the dreaming, you Turramurra types brought down by the Liberal-hating Labor party who can see an easy way to destroy the people and ignore their voice - the voice of ordinary people who just want to live their wealthy lives in unfettered privacy without a lot of apartment blocks within their purview. Is there anything more simple, more human or more humble than this joyous Camelot?

What to be done? Well it seems one of the heavies in Transfield (steady, no snickering, what a noble company, making such noble contributions to transport, power and all other kinds of infrastructure) has organised an action group called newDemocracy as a lobby group, to balance the way the Labor Party is acting. It seems membership of that wretched party is now about 2% when compared to what it was fifty years ago, and in the hands of Stalinists. But then so has the Liberal party membership dropped in a similarly catastrophic way. But wait, flying in from Perth to help out is former Liberal politician Fred Chaney, coming all the way to explain to the rich how they need to fight back, need to reclaim the political process, not by party membership but by "deliberative democracy".

To get the ball rolling, newDemocracy is holding a meeting in February, involving 150 citizens from around Australia, who will look at ways of improving the political system. And as a first step in finding these people, this very week they have mailed out 9000 letters of invitation to people selected at random from the electoral roll.

Now that's a novel way of proceeding. Never mind the Rudster's calling together of the best of the brainy types. No, this is more the philosophy of The Dice Man - let's just roll the die and see if we can turn up a six. Or one. Whatever. Be random. The lord will provide.

High on the agenda will be the prevention of the destruction of Ku-ring-gai. Duffy wants it preserved "just as biodiversity is preserved in nature by protecting different ecological systems in national parks". 

The rich are an ecological system? Some might think Duffy has, unfortunately, jumped the shark, but isn't there a little bit of green in all of us? Aren't we all keen conservationists? Don't tell me this is just a bit of regional Nimbyism. After all, some of the rich make their gardens available for inspection by the common person at least once a year, so if they don't want something to happen in their backyard, this is surely good for all of us. 

Why shouldn't developers develop apartments conveniently located near heavy rail? They just shouldn't do it on the upper north shore line. There's something intractably different about the north shore which makes them immune from development. Perhaps it's the leafiness? Or the grassiness? Or the floweriness? It keeps them immune. Let Labor and their developer mates ravage every other suburb that is somehow connected to heavy rail, but leave the upper north shore alone so that after a hard day installing tar and cement, the developers and their builder and lawyer and corporate mates can have a quiet night to recover their strength. 

I know, I know. Reality check time. Sydney's a tough place to live and it's going to get tougher. There are a lot of strains and pressures, and isn't it fun to see the wealthy start to kick and squeal as their life style is threatened? You can bet none of them ever gave a thought to Sydney airport, or the people living under it, except as they hastily drove their way through the inner south west, their windows shut against the alien smells of the rats living there in compressed concrete bunkers built like a Soviet gulag, while the rich, God bless them, were on their way to the south of France. Thank God for the freeways - no wonder Duffy wants more of them.

Who'd ever think it was possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for Frank Sartor, or Michael Costa or other members of the reprehensible Labor government? But now it's hard not to cheer them on, to have that class hatred spew out in the world, to let loose the baying hounds on the soft Liberals who live amongst the earthy leaf mould on the north shore. Go it, tear them up, fang them and their newDemocracy movement, degut them and while you're at it, shift all the wretched poor of Auburn into their tree-laden paradise.

Meantime, here's a tip for the northern suburbs types who never venture into the wilds of the west and so understand nothing. It isn't class hatred  that make the Labor government do this, it's just power and the desire to stay in power and keep the limos and avoid the public transport system they're incapable of fixing. No, the Labor party, once it's got a safe seat, spends all its time ignoring any of the needs of the working class stooges who voted them into power - just look at the facilities and services denied to those western dwellers who live far away from the Elysian fields promised to the head honchos of Transfield.

But you could have it all tomorrow,  the power and the glory, if you just got rid of the Christian right who want to spend time telling people how to live (and how not to have abortions or homosexual sex). All you have to do is promise to run the town in good managerial style. It wouldn't be that hard, to manage the town better than Labor (and not even in the style of previous brave premiers like Robin (nee Robert) William Askin, who apparently salivated at the sight of a brown paper bag. And you just have to promise it, nobody expects you to actually do it. The town's ungovernable and unmanageable and it's only going to get worse.

You could keep your leafy domains on the north shore, you might even be able to install gates on the Harbour Bridge so that the whole of the North Shore could become a gated community. Okay that wouldn't work - you have to let the lemmings go to work in North Sydney - but what about putting a gate across the highway just after Chatswood? A little bit of Roseville might be lost, but dammit, someone has to make the sacrifice.

Don't harumph about the challenge being to bring the community back into the political process. What you and the Duffster mean to say is that it should be fair dibs to the rich, and fuck off the rest of you. And that's fair enough, provided you promise to let a few crumbs droop from the tables of the rich, in the direction of all the rats who are forced to pack into their western suburbs squats. For pack they will, because Sydney is fast moving in the direction of Manhattan or Hong Kong, such is the pressure and the pricing on living space and facilities and services, and yet it's a colonial city with goat tracks as its original planning design, and incapable of being shunted into high density living without much pain. 

Of course Duffy thinks everyone should go live in Kellyville and enjoy the high life, where of course there's no decent public transport, poor facilities and dreams of a metro system which will never happen (as opposed to sensible plans for urban consolidation featuring public transport right next to your apartment block). 

But as Duffy shows by his embrace of Ku-ring-gai fear and loathing, his thinking on urban planning is reflexively silly, and driven by some deeply emotional and passionate urges which are never revealed in his articles. The mystery of the Duffy grows deeper, the rebel's cause now is the excruciatingly well off rich. In the meantime, the destruction of lifestyle for millions upon millions in Sydney not living in the northern suburbs grows apace. How will the eternal rebel respond?

So how does this week's effort rate:

Concern for the rich: 11
Appropriate lack of interest verging on contempt for the poor: 11
Gut hatred of the Labor party and its satanic minions: 11
Actual solutions to Sydney's planning issues: 1
Actual solutions for rats needing a nest, however humble: 2
Insights into Duffy: 9