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‘Barbara and the Camp Dogs’: politics and heart in the pub
Part cracking musical, part Indigenous family drama, Belvoir’s latest production deserves to go far

Elaine Crombie (left) and Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Barbara is more than a character played by Ursula Yovich: she’s an alter ego, a genie of rage, lust and grief, a comic sort of Fury who’s grabbed the main part. Her sister René (Elaine Crombie) almost eclipses her: it is the friction between the two that fires this story.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until 23 December 2017) is a road trip set in a pub, complete with lurid vomit-concealing carpet extending across the stage and up the first steps of the seating. Barbara and René are struggling, like all good female rock musicians, let alone Indigenous ones. The humdrum of getting gigs to pay the rent moves into top gear when their mother is hospitalised in Darwin, and the sisters need a plane fare. And so ensues a hilarious and heartbreaking journey. Back to country, to death, via the shitty Australian music industry, with the extreme fracture and resilience that can characterise Indigenous families, and side trips for sizzling sex bomb René’s mulga bush.

Yovich and Alana Valentine’s script literally pulls no punches, with Barbara’s first victim, a racist in the casino, floored in the first five minutes. This pint-sized meld of muscle and mishap then takes on the security guard, shoving his head in the fountain outside. Barbara “doesn’t give a bag full of smashed arseholes”. The language is relentlessly, necessarily obscene, recalling the golden age of surreal Australian vernacular, inflected with contemporary Aboriginality. As funny as the fights are, their tragedy is never elided. There’s a mood change precipitated by mother Jill’s failing health, and Barbara’s soliloquy about this “meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world” hits home. The bedrock of her anger lies beneath us all.

Vicki Gordon has produced a package where the elements of pub show, musical, polemic and family drama jostle alongside one another without neat definition, and so cohere. Hell, Barbara could even be produced in a casino. Director Letitia Cáceres fools us into thinking it’s more than a two-woman show, such is the space the sisters claim, with Yovich’s pugnacious sprightliness complementing Crombie’s stately control. The masterstroke of Stephen Curtis’s set, that aforementioned spew carpet, also anchors the sound. The band, a cracking female three-piece, is highly personable despite constraints. Tersely instructed to shut up when they dare ask if they can come, they play with the sort of gusto that makes you wonder how they’ll last the season. It’s pub rock with lyrics part narrative, part declarative and, of course, more than anything, the blazing voices of the sisters, Yovich belting and keening across Crombie’s smoky purr. A fourth member joins the band at the end with a twist that manages – just – to not be corny.

My only gripe is that the CD features just five songs, excluding my favourite, ‘Betty Boo’, a corker of a punk tune. The image of Barbara kicking and screaming it on her back on the couch will stay with me a long time. Barbara and the Camp Dogs has legs, will travel, to other places on this continent and hopefully beyond, maybe even to the land of cinema, in the footsteps of its forebears The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae, if the world can’t resist these fierce black sisters.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Hal Hattam: redefining the Australian beach scene
An exhibition showcases a painter who took an untrodden path though a familiar landscape

“Back Beach, Robe”, oil on canvas

Given that we’re a nation that lives, for the most part, clustered along the coast, it seems strange that paintings of beaches with their hard, bright light, their wide open spaces, are often not taken seriously. Or certainly weren’t in the past. The implication seemed to be that art should work with claustrophobia and the Gothic to be authentic. One of the refreshing aspects of Hal Hattam’s work, now showing in Paintings at Eastgate Gallery, in Hawthorn, Victoria, until 16 December, is that it’s to the beach that Hattam turned for inspiration, and it is these works that are his significant contribution to Australian art.

Hattam was an obstetrician, art collector and artist whose work was exhibited regularly from 1960 until his death in 1994. A man who was paid in paintings when he delivered the babies of artists. He had a big personality and stubby fingers (as did Picasso, he was fond of telling people). From the 1950s onwards, he and his wife, Kate, transformed their house in Cromwell Road, South Yarra, into a salon. The two acquired many works by artists in their circle and beyond. Credited as the first private collectors of Fred Williams’ art, they built up a substantial collection of his paintings from 1958 onwards. Hattam was the subject of significant portraits by major artists including Williams, John Brack and Clifton Pugh, as was Kate by Pugh.

Despite this sociability, the photographs he took were of landscapes rather than people. His daughter, the artist Katherine Hattam, remembers her father taking out a disposable camera to photograph the Sturt’s desert pea, finishing the roll, then throwing the film over his shoulder, expecting developed pictures to magically turn up at their chemist. Tents put up on the Nullarbor during family excursions, then abandoned because Hattam couldn’t figure out how to get them down. These gestures speak of vagueness and impatience, but are also quite surreal. Some of that strange quality is present in his paintings.

In 2003, a tribute retrospective of Hattam’s work was held at Heide Museum of Modern Art. At the time, Patrick McCaughey wrote that Hattam’s subject matter was “undisturbed by any human presence. The sand is untrodden. The beach occupies virtually the entire canvas; it absorbs the total consciousness of the painter and the viewer, in turn.” In choosing blue skies, scrubby trees, sparse beaches and coastal fringes, in focusing on the sandy space between the dunes and the water’s edge, Hattam worked against the impulses of his friends. These included fellow artists John Perceval, Williams, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Brack and Pugh. Hattam joined Williams and Perceval on painting excursions during seminal periods in those painters’ careers, from the mid to late 1950s, and it was at this time he started painting seriously. These trips took them to Williamstown, the Dandenongs and the You Yangs, and the friendships and experiences were all that he had by way of training. Hattam was self-taught, and as a result he developed his own distinctive style using oils, gouaches, and drawings. His work, along with that of Williams and Len French, was considered for the Antipodean show in 1959. All three were rejected, which, given that the Antipodeans were avowedly anti-modernist, is hardly surprising. Instead, Hattam’s first exhibition ended up being at Joseph Brown Galleries, in 1960. As you walk around Paintings, you can pick that earlier work when you look at paintings such as Honeysuckle Point (1973). The palette is richer, the use of oil paint heavier, and there is more focus on bush and plant life.

His shift to seascapes speaks of an attraction to the margins. Poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe has talked of Hattam’s “struggle to escape from the medical life … gradually making himself an inhabitant of that margin, the sea’s fringe”. His paintings of Shoreham and Fraser Island are particularly expressive of this. Such subject matter also led to his characteristic use of space. Space that isn’t, as his grandson William Mackinnon described this void in a recent lecture. If you look into his whites, there “are sensual washes and stains of pink, eggshell and soft hues”. The artist Michel Kemp has talked of Hattam’s palette being warm, despite his use of blues and whites, rather than cold, suggesting this is because of the economy and simplicity of his composition. As well as shifts in tone, there is great textual dexterity. In Hattam’s hands, oil is not just sculptural – though it can be – but is as delicate as gossamer, more akin to gouache or watercolour. As Mackinnon says, “subtle washes are the counterpoint to dark and spiky patches of delicious intensity of extruded oil paint straight from the tube”.

To paint the coastline, you have to embrace light and it was the light that distinguished Australia from Hattam’s childhood homeland, Scotland, from which he emigrated at the age of seven. As a young man, he served in the war as a medical officer, and then returned to Britain. It was there he met and married Kate and they returned together to Australia in 1948. He never left its shores again.

At the show’s launch, Dr Mike Richards described Hattam’s response to Australian light when the would-be artist arrived in Australia as a child. “I had to squint,” Hattam said. “The intensity was extreme.” As he reacquainted himself with Australia, he was also struck by the wide horizons and dazzling stretches of sand, so different from the beaches of Europe. This attraction to space and light led to an idiosyncratic form of abstraction, though ragged shrub often intrudes from the sides, anchoring the painting back into some form of reality. Horizons, shorelines and dunes form a series of shapes, which you don’t, at first, register as beach at all. There are geometric bodies of water; the sharp lines of beach, water and sky; the curve of dunes.

In Lake Wabby (1975), conventional perspective is abandoned and the coastal lake hangs, as if on a clothesline, from a thin strip of ocean on the top edge of the canvas. The pale water of the lake takes up the centre of the picture. The painting is not just about the fringe, but its content is on the fringe, as the eye is forced to the edges of the canvas. These works are, as Mackinnon says, “about the act of painting itself”. In Back Beach, Robe, pale sand fills up most of the canvas, pushing it towards the work of minimalists and avant-garde artists such as Dale Hickey, Robert Jacks and Robert Hunter whom Hattam so admired. Green Water is a series of stripes, not quite reduced simply to colour and light but heading in the direction of the North American painters of the desert, such as Agnes Martin, though without their obsessive precision. These are paintings that evoke landscape without being slavish imitations of any actual place, paintings that throb and hum, loud as cicadas in summer.

Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Warning: The story of Cyclone Tracy.

@sophiec

The unclear future of ‘Transparent’
Has Jeffrey Tambor given the groundbreaking series its most definitive ending?

Courtesy of Amazon Studios 

Midway through the fourth season of Transparent, the elegiac television series about the ructions of a Jewish-American clan from Los Angeles, the show’s fulcrum, transgender woman Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), unexpectedly meets a long-lost blood relative during a trip to Israel. The relation talks about how they left America to take a second chance at life in the then young nation, and Maura, who transitioned at nearly 70 years of age, has an epiphany that, like so much on this inspired comic drama, is both fleeting and fertile.

“You can just start again?” wonders Maura aloud, bemused at the audacity of the idea and then shaken by the lost possibilities. For Maura, like her offspring, life is about the constant rhythm of change, conflict and reconciliation. On Transparent, you can’t draw a line under the past and consign it to history, because it never moves into the past tense. What has happened to you helps define – for better or worse – what comes next, and the series is an acute representation of how people can grow and naturally evolve, so that their emotional responses are like growth rings accrued over time.

Until now there have been few definitive endings on-screen in Transparent, which streams in Australia on Stan. But mid November, in the wake of the new season’s release, the show experienced one off-screen, when Jeffrey Tambor offered his hasty resignation, although he has recently backtracked. Tambor had been accused of sexual misconduct by a member of the supporting cast, as well as by his former personal assistant. An investigation by Amazon Studios is ongoing.

Beyond the unfortunately common occurrence of abuse allegations against a prominent man in the entertainment industry, there was the disappointment of Tambor’s purported actions demeaning the show’s ethos. Transparent is rich with radical concepts and religious experience, full of philosophy and faith that can be compelling without ever losing its relatability, and it embraced characters who were vulnerable and uncertain. The production team was also a model of inclusiveness in terms of gender, sexuality and race, a retort to Hollywood’s traditional production hierarchies.

Now, like Netflix’s House of Cards shorn of Kevin Spacey, Transparent may lose the actor who plays the central character. With their activist’s inclinations, series creator Jill Soloway – who now identifies as non-binary – has previously said that if Transparent were gearing up now, they would never cast a cisgender actor such as Tambor in the role of Maura. Soloway can’t recast the role – Tambor’s exemplary work in front of the camera was the definitive performance in a career that already included The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development – but the actor’s possible departure doesn’t necessarily have to leave a void.

When Transparent began with the announcement by Maura, a retired university professor, that she was no longer Mort, her three adult children – the defiantly unsatisfied wife and mother Sarah (Amy Landecker), wilfully buoyant music industry executive Josh (Jay Duplass), and sidetracked graduate student Ali (Gaby Hoffman) – were each still tethered to their parent, whether through financial support, emotional dependence, or misplaced family nostalgia. It was not entirely surprising that Maura had taught politics, for she certainly understood how to practise it.

But as Maura has explored challenge after illuminating challenge, whether finding a sense of place within the often subterranean Los Angeles transgender culture, or trying to secure gender-reassignment surgery, her children have had to support her. In turn, they’ve increasingly delved further into their own complex lives; the satellite states have found a degree of independence. There remains a tender elasticity to their ineffable family bond – which takes in Maura’s former wife and the children’s mother, Shelly (Judith Light) and Sarah’s on-off-on husband Len (Rob Huebel) – so that it snaps back together after being stretched, but their paths are increasingly distinct.

In the fourth season, that connection means they all end up, through the conciliatory efforts of the rediscovered Pfefferman, in Israel. “Borders. Occupation. It’s so intense,” notes Ali, and the stresses of the land they traverse could also apply to the family’s fraught dynamic. The strength of the writing may be in how these differing orbits find a complementary psychological synchronisation: it is only by the finale that Josh, who has long struggled with his feelings about sex and responsibility due to a teenage relationship with an adult female in a position of authority, realises that he is linked to his mother through the trauma of sexual abuse in her childhood that she has repressed for many decades.

Transparent’s techniques, which were once merely professional, have become almost proprietary. Earlier seasons that had flashbacks, including to 1930s Berlin where Maura’s mother escaped but others were taken by the Nazis, were supplanted by direct communications with the past. Maura’s memories of her early married years, when she thought her sexuality might explain her discomfort with her body, became conversations with the young woman she’d pictured herself as decades prior. Ghostly figures haunted some of the characters, drawing on Judaic myth, but they were as likely to crack jokes as cajole confessions.

Transparent has a remarkable ability to slip in and out of the everyday, in much the same way as the characters might surrender to pleasure and then snap back into their lives. When Sarah and Len start a polyamorous relationship with one of their children’s former kindergarten teachers, Lila (Alia Shawkat), they are more concerned with carefully applied guidelines than transgressive freedom – the way they initially call her, per the children’s kindergarten etiquette, Miss Lila, only adds to the curious intermingling of boundaries.

With the Pfeffermans in Israel for most of this season, there is less observation of Los Angeles’ mores, which the show is unusually well attuned to (listen to how Sarah says “ish” instead of issues during an argument with Josh), although there is a telling contrast in how an absent Maura is able to casually lend her home to Davina (Alexandra Billings), her friend and long-time transgender woman whose marginalisation has meant decades of “mental gymnastics” to keep a roof over her head. Like other enduring series, Transparent has great empathy for its creations, but it can critique them with heartfelt acuity.

The latest season misses the roiling emotion of Josh’s ex-fiancée, Rabbi Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn, seconded to Soloway’s terrific new series I Love Dick), but the ease with which it unfolds and the revelatory ground it covers confirms that Transparent is one of the emblematic creations of the streaming age: a niche production elevated by sheer quality to cultural prominence. Going forward it can survive, and likely prosper, even if it turns out to be without Tambor’s Maura. It doesn’t need to start again.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

Fire man Sam
Dastyari’s China-related missteps have been a gift for Turnbull – one that the PM hopes will keep on giving

Source

There is an old science-fiction story about a totalitarian state that regularly paraded dissidents before a packed arena bent on retribution and punishment.

Led by a professional hate master, the crowd was encouraged to take its anger and resentment to a hysterical level, until the force and heat of its hatred actually caused the victim to catch fire and be burned to death, to the cathartic delight of the mob.

Now, obviously Malcolm Turnbull is hardly a full-time hate master; the lawyer–banker is far too suave and supercilious for the role. But having said that, it is just as well Sam Dastyari is fireproof. As a war lord of the New South Wales Right, and its chief bagman, he has had to be.

But the problem is that while the miscreant senator may not be flammable, he, like asbestos, can still be potentially lethal to those around him. Which is why Bill Shorten, who is the real target of the prime minister’s vehemence, is in serious trouble because of his longstanding association with one of his main men.

The Opposition leader has reluctantly demoted Dastyari – twice. But of course that is not enough for Turnbull, who wants him expunged from the parliament, if not the nation. This is simply not in Shorten’s power, even if he were inclined to try – which he is not.

Dastyari was elected by the people, and cannot be removed except as a result of a long and tortuous process in which he would have to be shown to be guilty of very serious offences. The government is now planning to widen its authoritarian net to include any future malefactors, but the legislation will not be retrospective and may, in any case, be insufficient for a successful prosecution.

So, for the moment, Dastyari can hang on until at least the end of his parliamentary term. Shorten could try to persuade the Labor Party’s executive to expel Dastyari from its ranks, but he is unwilling to take such a drastic step – the consequences would be unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. And Dastyari shows no signs of resigning of his own accord – from anything. So Shorten will have to wear the albatross around his neck until it eventually drops off, and Turnbull is determined to keep it hanging there, getting smellier and smellier, for as long as possible.

Indeed, despite all the bluster and ranting, it is not in Turnbull’s interest to see Dastyari smoulder away into a pile of ashes: the scandal over the senator’s association with a Chinese benefactor linked to Beijing is a rare and welcome pre-Christmas gift to be cherished and protected.

Turnbull can celebrate the totally foreseen win in New England and, outrageously, even claim some of the credit for it; he can cheer that his Newspoll standing has finally edged forward, and that the numbers foretell a crushing defeat rather than a complete wipe-out. But his party room wanted to see claret flow – bring back the biff! And Turnbull, given the easiest of targets, is happy to try to oblige. When do you kick a man? When he’s down.

Sam Dastyari is well and truly down, but the real bonus would be if he tried to get up again. It is not time to bring him to ignition point just yet – there is much more hate to be unleashed until the final conflagration.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Inner Life of Animals’: animals have feelings too
The author of ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ argues that animals experience emotions like we do

Nicolas Malebranche, the French rationalist, once wrote of animals: “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” The poetic callousness of this statement has long roots in Western thinking, which grants humans special, and often separate, status, from biblical creation myths to the philosophies of ancient Greece. Aristotle’s natural hierarchy of living beings gave animals instincts but denied them reason; in Christian theology, Aquinas, inspired by this view, argued that animals were merely instruments that existed for human use; and Descartes famously denied them both language and consciousness, concluding that animals were simply automata. The scientific revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of materialism, which emphasised evidence from the physical world, and similarly, a system of Linnaean classification (birds, mammals, fish, insects and so on) sought to bring the vastness and diversity of nature into “order”. The rigours of the scientific method, which relies on testable hypotheses, did not bode well for the moral status of animals, whose inner lives remain contested today.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is how we choose to frame the question: is it one of science, or of philosophy? Is it, more radically, a question of intuition? Anyone who works or lives intimately with animals will probably be able to tell you, with deep conviction and in great detail, of their visible pleasures and displeasures: their quirks, their desire for play, their individually stamped fears and anxieties. As I write this, my cat lies curled up on my desk in a patch of sun: how not to believe that she has feelings, memories, a recognition of me even, when staring into those searching green liquid eyes? And yet how to know for sure? What’s missing is the bridge of language (indeed, Descartes based his arguments on the belief that animals could not use language rationally). So far, any attempts to communicate have proven too limited to answer this looming question.

Yet is the simplest explanation really the truest one? And does absence of evidence really mean evidence of absence? Not necessarily, according to the German forester Peter Wohlleben, who argues in The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World (Bodley Head; $29.99) for the benefit of the doubt, and more besides. One senses that Wohlleben would like doubt to be the axe that shatters the ice of our ignorance, and he begins by working on some deeply held assumptions. “The idea that there was an abrupt break in the course of evolution, and that at some point everything was reinvented, is an idea whose time is past,” he writes. Humans and animals have evolved similarly over many millions of years, and the phenomenon of life itself could mean that we are far more alike than we think. Wohlleben points out that the limbic system, which houses joy, grief, fear and desire, is a structure shared by humans and many mammals, including goats, dogs, horses and pigs, and, according to some scientists, birds and fish as well. Mirror neurons, which allow us to feel empathy, have already been discovered in apes, and scientists speculate that they may exist, too, in animals that live in herds or large groups.

New research also suggests that our own free will, the criterion so often used to hold humans apart, may not be so infallible after all. In 2008, the Max Planck Society published a study in which they asked participants to decide to push a button with either their right or their left hand. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) actually revealed what these decisions were before the participants became conscious of them, sometimes by seven seconds. Neuropsychologists have argued that our feelings of agency may be retrospective, that is, used to explain our actions to ourselves after the fact.

There’s also the idea that consciousness is a spectrum, rather than an either/or proposition, allowing animals to experience it by degrees. This distinction seems to matter less to Wohlleben, who points out that emotions arise from the unconscious part of the brain, and thus because “every species of animal experiences brain activity … every animal necessarily has emotions”. It is this range of emotions that most fascinates him, and where he spends most of the book’s time, on gratitude, grief, courage, deception and even anticipating the future. Vampire bats, for example, are altruistic in a sense: those who have a successful night hunting often regurgitate blood to feed those who were less so. Even more intriguingly, they are able to recognise and remember each other, and those who generously fed others in the past are always the first to be cared for in turn.

Wohlleben is not a stylist but a writer who wants to make hard science accessible. At the beginning of the book, he beckons us into his own Germanic forest as if through a magical doorway: “I would like to act as your interpreter [and] I hope this will help you see the animal world around you … not as mindless automatons driven by inflexible genetic code, but as stalwart souls and lovable rascals … Come on, I’ll show you what I mean.” While it is hard not to warm to this earnestness, the book does end up sacrificing depth for popular appeal. The chapters are short and hardly vary in shape; as soon as you feel momentum building, the topic is finished and we’re on to the next. There’s also something vaguely YouTube-like to all the stories of grateful magpies and cross-species adoption. One craves at times fewer anecdotes, and more heavy grappling.

After all, there is so much more to this question than the studies, as fascinating as they may be. We feel a clash here between our intuition, our denied instincts, and the scientific rigour that has made us the apex predator of this world. Our sense of our own unique intelligence tells us that we should, somehow, be able to solve this problem, and our imagination taunts us with the possibility that, yes, we could know what it is like to be a bat. And yet, for now at least, we can’t, and we don’t. Is this gap insurmountable? Or is it also humbling, even liberating, to know so little and yet suspect more.

Jessica Au

Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and an associate editor at Aeon.

Without America: Australia in the New Asia
Making sense of a new reality and the return of power politics – a Quarterly Essay extract

For almost a decade now, the world’s two most powerful countries have been competing over which of them will dominate the world’s most important and dynamic region. America has been trying to remain East Asia’s primary power, and China has been trying to replace it. Their contest is playing out over trade deals and infrastructure plans, in the diplomacy of multilateral meetings, and above all through military gamesmanship in regional hotspots like the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. But all these are really just symptoms of their underlying rivalry.

How the contest will proceed – whether peacefully or violently, quickly or slowly – is still uncertain, but the most likely outcome is now becoming clear. America will lose, and China will win. America will cease to play a major strategic role in Asia, and China will take its place as the dominant power. War remains possible, especially with someone like Donald Trump in the Oval Office. But the risk of war recedes as it becomes clearer that the odds are against America, and as people in Washington come to understand that their nation cannot defend its leadership in Asia by fighting an unwinnable war with China. The probability therefore grows that America will peacefully, and perhaps even willingly, withdraw. Indeed, this is already happening, and Asia is changing as a result. The old US-led order is passing, and a new China-led order is taking its place.

This is not what anyone expected. Seven years ago, in Quarterly Essay 39, I argued that as power shifted from Washington to Beijing, and as China’s ambitions for leadership in Asia grew, America faced a contest in Asia that it would be unable to win outright. Its best option, therefore, would be to negotiate a new regional order, retaining a lesser but still substantial strategic role in Asia that would balance China’s power, limit its influence and prevent East Asia falling under Chinese hegemony.

Many people disagreed. They argued that America’s power would remain so much greater than China’s that it was unnecessary for America to make any such concessions. By holding firm, it could face down China, persuade it to back off and leave American leadership in Asia unchallenged once more.

Alas, my critics and I were both wrong. We were slow to see the growing rivalry between America and China, and we didn’t recognise, or permit ourselves to acknowledge, how serious the rivalry has become, and how badly it has been going for America. That is because we all underestimated China’s power and resolve, and overestimated America’s. Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all. Many expected that China would falter before it grew strong enough to challenge America on anything like equal terms. Instead, China has kept growing stronger – economically, militarily and diplomatically – and America’s resolve has weakened. Now it is China that is facing down America. That was the clear message of Xi Jinping’s remarkable assertion of China’s status and power at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in October 2017. The contest is indeed unequal, but not in the way we thought. So we find ourselves in a new Asia, and we do not like it. But that’s the hand history is dealing us, and we must make the best of it.

We in Australia haven’t seen this coming, because Washington hasn’t seen it coming and we have got into the habit of seeing the world through Washington’s eyes. We have been happy to accept Washington’s assurances that it has China’s measure, and Washington itself has been slow to understand how serious China’s challenge has become and how badly it has mishandled the contest.

More broadly, our recent history has left us ill equipped to understand what is happening. The contest between America and China is classic power politics of the harshest kind. We have not seen this kind of struggle in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War, or globally since the end of the Cold War. The generations of politicians, public servants, journalists, analysts and citizens who grew up with power politics and knew how it worked have left the public stage. Political leaders like Menzies and Fraser, Curtin and Whitlam, and Hawke, Keating and Howard; public servants like Arthur Tange; journalists like Peter Hastings and Denis Warner; academics like Hedley Bull, Tom Millar and Coral Bell; and the voters who lived through the wars and struggles of the first three-quarters of the 20th century: they would all find Asia today much easier to understand than we do. We have a lot to learn and not much time to learn it.

And of course it has been harder to acknowledge what has been happening in Asia because it has been so difficult to imagine where it is taking us. We are heading for an Asia we have never known before, one without an English-speaking great and powerful friend to dominate the region, keep us secure and protect our interests. The fear that that this might happen – the “fear of abandonment,” as Allan Gyngell calls it – has been the mainspring of Australian foreign policy since World War Two, and indeed long before. But since the Cold War ended – a generation ago now – we have forgotten those old fears and begun to take American power and protection for granted. We have come to depend more and more on America as its position in Asia has become weaker and weaker. We have been happy to get rich off China’s growth, confident that America can shield us from China’s power. Now it is clear that confidence has been misplaced; we need to start thinking for ourselves about how to make our way and hold our corner in an Asia dominated by China.

That is what this essay is about. It looks first at how America is losing the contest with China, and then at Australia: how we have responded to the US–China contest so far, why we have got it so wrong, and what we can do now to manage the new reality we face.


Asia became largely free of power politics in 1972, when China stopped challenging America in the region. Now the power politics has returned because China has reversed course and started to challenge America again, and the two countries confront one another in a classic contest between a rising power that wants to take over the regional leadership and a declining power that wants to hold on to it.

Which country ends up as the leading power in Asia will depend on the issues they can each persuade the other they are prepared to fight over. To preserve its leadership, America must persuade China that it is willing to go to war to resist China’s challenge. That doesn’t mean it has actually to fight a war, only that it must persuade China that it is willing to do so. China has to show that it is willing to fight to depose the United States. It is doing this now by the classic power-political ploy of salami-slicing. The aim is to test America’s resolve over a series of issues of little intrinsic worth, which on the face of it do not seem worth fighting over. But while each slice of the salami might be insignificant, Washington looks weak if it can’t or won’t stop China taking one slice after another, and China by contrast looks strong and resolved. This undermines the credibility of US leadership, as regional countries lose confidence that Washington will support them if the next slice of the salami is them. China’s influence is correspondingly enhanced, as its neighbours grow less willing to defy it. This is what’s happening in the South China Sea today. It has very little to do with questions of sovereignty over reefs and rocks, or who has rights over which areas of ocean. Nor does it have much to do with arcane questions of international law. These substantive questions merely provide the setting for Washington and Beijing to display their strategic resolve, and to put their rival’s to the test. By deploying their militaries to the contested area, both America and China are signalling their willingness to use force to win the point and to demonstrate that the other is not. America has hoped to show that China will back off rather than risk a confrontation, and China hopes to show that it will be America that backs off. This is pure power politics at work. And so far, China is winning.

Of course, neither side wants a clash, let alone a major war, because both understand that even so great a prize as leadership in Asia would not be worth such a massive disaster. But that doesn’t stop them playing power politics, because each side believes it can get what it wants without a war, because the other will retreat to avoid one. The Chinese seem convinced that America will surrender regional leadership rather than risk a war with China, and the Americans have been equally sure, at least until recently, that China will drop its challenge and go back to accepting US leadership rather than risk a war with America.

Sometimes this kind of gamesmanship works: one side or the other decides the game is not worth the candle and backs off, or each side comes to accept the other’s key interests and they reach a modus vivendi. That is why war is not inevitable between a rising power and an established power. The idea that it is – that an iron law of history dictates rising powers always fight established rivals, so that China must end up at war with America – has been about for many years, and has been expertly analysed recently by American political scientist Graham Allison. A famous line in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War is often mistranslated to say that the rising power of Athens challenging the established power of Sparta made war “inevitable”. In fact, Thucydides’ subtle and elusive Greek expressed a much more sophisticated and accurate judgment: that the rivals were trapped in a situation that made it hard for them to escape war.

History bears this out. War might not be inevitable, but it is a very serious risk. Even when neither side wants war, miscalculations can easily happen. Each side tends to assume that its resolve is stronger than its rival’s, so is tempted to push ahead into a confrontation, believing the other will back off. Then the confrontation escalates, the rhetoric intensifies, and the stakes grow as the costs of backing down increase. Each side can quite quickly reach the point where backing down looks worse than going to war, and a war starts that no one wants.

That is what happened in 1914. People often talk about the obvious parallels between Europe then and Asia today, as a rising power confronts a long-established leader. But the more important parallel is less obvious. War came in the last week of July 1914, when decision-makers in the key capitals – Vienna, St Petersburg and Berlin – believed they could prevail over their rivals because they assumed their opponents would back down. But they were all wrong: no one backed down, and by the time that became clear, each power was too committed to step back. They all reluctantly went to war because the national humiliation of retreating at that late stage appeared even worse.

This is the danger we face in Asia today: that both Washington and China, neither of them wanting war but each underestimating the other’s resolve, will allow a crisis to escalate to the point where they each face a disastrous choice between war and humiliation, and both choose war, just as Europe’s leaders did a century ago.

This is an edited extract of Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay 68, Without America: Australia in the New Asiaavailable now.

Hugh White

Hugh White is a professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

2023: A Trilogy
The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (aka the KLF) redefine the book launch

Photo by Jenny Valentish.

November 23. Night. The man they call Gimpo places his hands on the bonnet of the black cab and maniacally stares down the driver as if he’s facing off with a tank. The cab has been halted by the length of rope that bisects Kingsland High Street. At the front of the length of rope is a monk. Behind the monk are 100 men and women in hi-vis ponchos, chanting, stopping further traffic. A dilapidated ice-cream van glides through a bank of yellow smoke, tinkling a terrifying refrain.

It’s not your average book launch.

Literary events have got more inventive of late. There have been flash mobs in the streets and on Tube trains (sometimes in masks) and guerrilla readings here and there, but this is my first riot. I’ve scored one of 50 pairs of tickets to “Burn the Shard” – the Shard being a 95-storey skyscraper near London Bridge that’s the villain of a new book, 2023: A Trilogy (Faber & Faber, $29.99). It’s written by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, aka late-’80s/early-’90s band the KLF, aka Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond.

After disbanding the KLF, Cauty and Drummond announced a 23-year moratorium on discussing their career, in particular the burning of a million quid in 1994 – the profits of their lengthy careers in the music industry, including Drummond’s management of Echo and the Bunnymen, his A&R roles and record label Zoo; Cauty’s stints in the Orb and Brilliant; and their joint achievement of becoming the biggest-selling singles act in the world in 1991.

That moratorium expired on 23 August this year, when Cauty and Drummond threw part one of their (don’t call it a) book launch in Liverpool. This “Welcome to the Dark Ages” three-dayer recruited 400 “volunteers” – many of whom had flown in from around the world – to man a rope and drag the ice-cream van through the streets, amid fiery spectacles. Motives and answers were thin on the ground, but column inches were plentiful.

Twenty-three is a number of significance to conspiracy theorists, from its associations with the Knights Templar to its role in mathematics. The KLF have used it throughout their work, most likely as a nod to its appearance in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Their own book is multi-stranded metafiction that nods to Wilson/Shea’s work. In one sense it’s a psychogeographical tale of the KLF tracing their old haunts, but the characters – among them graphic novelist Alan Moore, writer–director Ken Campbell and artist Banksy – are not cast in their real-life roles here. This is a parallel universe in which Cauty and Drummond themselves are undertakers, not pop stars.

Back in our dimension, my invite to the audiobook launch instructs me to meet at a certain postcode – N1 5RY – which turns out to be a Dalston bar overlooking Regent’s Canal. I’m told to bring a copy of the book, because failure to correctly answer questions about its contents will result in “penalties”.

The first reading in the back of the bar is by Daisy Campbell – daughter of the aforementioned Ken – and it’s a passage about the Shard. Twice, in 2023: A Trilogy, characters imagine the Shard as having a massive eyeball spiked atop it, like the Eye of Providence. It’s as if the building mocks the citizens of less salubrious suburbs such as Dalston. And given that, in reality, all 10 of the Shard’s £50 million apartments have remained empty since it was built, indeed it does mock.

Master of ceremonies tonight is neither Drummond nor Cauty, though they’re here, but actor Oliver Senton. He warns, “Over the next three hours there will be walking, running and some precise following. If you get lost, there will be no help. Do as you are asked with no question and everything will be all right.” Before we leave, some of us are appointed jobs, including flyposting and tweeting. In other words, we’re doing the marketing and PR for the book for free. Genius.

We set off down the canal path, following the yellow smoke grenades let off by Gimpo, the KLF’s longstanding ex-military wingman. At points along the way, “ghosts” from the book act out their scenes. Here’s Yoko Ono (but not as we know her), throwing the body of John Lennon into the water. A 100-metre trot later, here’s Henry Pedders, a disaffected youth in a tracksuit, slouching over the railings. We halt as, through a loudhailer, Senton reads another passage. As an overweight child, Pedders narrowly missed out on being cast as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, on account of not coming from the sort of family who would get him to Pinewood Studios on time. Calcifying with resentment in his Dalston tower block, he observes the Shard being built and it becomes a shrine to his hatred.

Up to street level, and we follow the ice-cream van, driven by Cauty with an antisocial Ronald McDonald in the passenger seat. It occasionally lets out a few chimes of a KLF hit and a spray of sparks. Our next stop is 355 Queensbridge Road, underneath the tower block Henry Pedders grew up in. Senton informs us that Pedders, now fully grown, is itching for destruction. He opens a Twitter account, Henry Da Riot, and begins his call to arms: Burn the Shard.

The Shard’s a bit of a hike from Dalston, though, and as Gimpo chastises one of us, “We’re not gonna burn the fucking Shard, are we? It’s made of glass.” Instead, we’re going to storm another symbol of capitalism, McDonald’s. The monk leads us single file towards the golden arches, accumulating local gangs of youths as we go. They’re not liking our chant of “Big Mac with fries”. The politest of them asks, “How come you lot are doing that?” The most truthful answer comes from the woman behind me on the rope: “It’s a load of rave mums and rave dads doing it for a bit of a giggle.”

Upon reaching McDonald’s, we troop through it, all 100 of us – in the front door, around the tables, out again. Some young kids get into it without question, joining in the chant. The stragglers of us are booted out by security, however, with a “Don’t disrespect the brand.” That’s OK – we’re now being led to the Irish pub over the road, in one door and out the other. It’s not the sort of pub you want to take the piss out of, to be honest, but there’s no time to contemplate that when you’re following a rope. A bloke’s singing karaoke in the corner. Another bloke at the bar is fluffing up and growling at us, “’Ow stupid is that?” He has no idea how stupid.

It’s refreshments time, in a square populated by a homeless community who aren’t that pleased to witness some avant-garde performance art. Instead of the customary red wine and brie, this book launch has whisky and “Mu” mince pies, served out of the ice-cream van window. The volunteers who signed up for marketing are given posters and buckets of paste.

There’s a quick stop at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre for another loudhailer reading about our child actor’s further disappointment, then a frenzy of pasting up 2023 posters. The police still haven’t joined in, despite our hi-vis ponchos acting as giant neon arrows; despite the unscheduled rope-detouring of Kingsland High Street traffic; despite the seizing of smoke grenades by local youths, who launch them at the ice-cream van as we beat a hasty retreat.

The action ends where it started, in the bar, as if spirits aren’t high enough already. No Shard was harmed in the making of this event, but whether this Dalston exploit is the last from Cauty and Drummond remains to be seen. I’m guessing not.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first nonfiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.

Nats in the ranks
Turnbull may have an ally in Barnaby Joyce, but the Nationals are a broad church.

Source

When the New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro called for Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation last week, it was simple for Turnbull’s federal allies to dismiss it as just another distraction – just another frustrated voice howling into the empty air.

Barnaby Joyce and Mathias Cormann said it was unhelpful and Julie Bishop said that Barilaro was not in her party room, so it was irrelevant.

Turnbull himself accused Barilaro of sucking up to the prime minister’s old enemy, the shock jock Alan Jones. Turnbull says he’s enjoying himself, and while his smile may be becoming a bit strained, there is no hint that he intends to assuage the discontent.

But it is not as simple as that. There are ominous signs that Barilaro’s intervention may become a catalyst for an insurgency – not yet a fully formed rebellion, but a game changer in what has become a political impasse.

Barilaro is not just another fringe dweller with his own pet peeve, as is the case with George Christensen, John “Wacka” Williams, Andrew Broad or Barry O’Sullivan and the other part-time dissidents in the Nationals party room. He is mainstream Nationals heartland – a leader in his own state and one who demands attention across its borders.

And at a time when the Nats are feeling their oats, as it were, this can spell trouble. Cormann, ever zealous to guard the prime minister’s constantly turned back, says not to worry; as Barnaby Joyce rejoins the federal team stability will be restored.

But this may be wishful thinking. Even during his temporary exile in his New England electorate, Joyce mused that the incipient revolt over the banking inquiry might not be such a bad idea. He knows, better than anyone, that his troops want more independence, more clout – and, it follows, less Turnbull.

It is highly likely they will demand bigger and more frequent concessions from his wafer-thin government, and an actual split from the Coalition is not out of the question. Of course, the Nats would guarantee confidence and supply – they do not want to wreck the place altogether, at least when there is still a chance they can retain the perks of office.

But they could well make government effectively unworkable, which would have much the same effect. And in doing so they could force the Libs to make a choice: Turnbull or the bush. Given that there are quite a few Libs who would welcome their current leader’s demise, the risks are very real.

So far, Turnbull has held the line at least because there is no consensus for an alternative, but the Nats are ready to fill that gap: they are deeply suspicious of Scott Morrison and regard Bishop as beyond the pale; but Peter Dutton, a hardline conservative and a Queenslander, is regarded as an ally.

Dutton may be unpopular with the electorate, but so is Turnbull – for the marginal Nats, the change could hardly be worse and just may be better, at least in holding their own seats. Barilaro, formerly a councillor in Queanbeyan, seems an unlikely revolutionary, but weird times turn up weird warriors. Yet another worry for Turnbull before he tucks into the Point Piper Christmas pudding.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Anthony Bourdain, the anti-foodie foodie
The so-called bad-boy celebrity chef has always offered a smarter take – and now we’re beginning to notice

Did anyone see it coming? Did Anthony Bourdain himself? How did a man who made his name with a book that largely glamourised the swinging-dick bro culture of professional kitchens – a book whose cover showed him and a couple of other dudes wielding long, sharp, rather phallic-looking knives – come to be a much sought-after interview subject on everything from the Trump presidency to the Weinstein scandal? How did he come to be treated as a public intellectual?

At least part of the answer is that Bourdain has always been a smarter, more moral and self-interrogating individual than he’s been given credit for. It’s simply taken us a while – too long, really, given the evidence of his work – to notice. This is partly down to who the man is, or presents himself as, in his work: rakish, devil-may-care, cool. He swears, he drinks, he smokes. (He also churns out work at a rate that no real hard-living alcoholic could match, which should have tipped us off.)

But the number of people who read Kitchen Confidential and still somehow manage to persuade themselves that it’s a paean to curse words and being a jerk is finally beginning to dwindle. Any serious engagement with Bourdain’s output – including Kitchen Confidential, which actually condemns the lifestyle it describes, however subtly – leaves one wondering how that number could have been so high in the first place.

The evidence has been piling up for a while, of course. Bourdain’s first television series, A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network, was basically what it said on the label. (You can catch that series on Netflix, and it’s a fascinating document about being a middle-aged career cook whose book has become an unexpected bestseller.) But in the series that followed it – No Reservations on the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown, the tenth season of which just finished airing on CNN – Bourdain’s desire to do something more important than simply service the bourgeois-bohemian predilection for food porn was immediately apparent. (The only other celebrity chef whose work comes close is Jamie Oliver, who clearly believes he has a social mission. We’ll come back to the others, who essentially amount to corporate mouthpieces, in a moment.) Travel broke something in Bourdain. Or, perhaps, fixed it.

No Reservations, repeats of which are constantly airing on SBS Food, was always a more serious affair than A Cook’s Tour. But we can nevertheless point to its most famous episode, “Beirut”, as the point where Bourdain really stopped producing a particularly well-made but otherwise stock-standard food-and-travel program and started making a kind of high-minded news program disguised as a stock-standard food-and-travel one. Other episodes in its vein soon followed.

One always hopes to catch one of these episodes when flicking through the channels: the episodes that abandon food entirely in favour of reporting the news of the day, or dealing with history, or both. In the “Beirut” episode, which went on to win a Peabody Award, the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War breaks out, cutting short the shoot and forcing the host and his crew to evacuate. (The episode is unremittingly depressing. Bourdain has said that he was adamant there not be “any corny element of hope there at the end. You know, we’re all going to end up ground under the wheel.”)

I would also point to No Reservation’s Laos and Haiti episodes, the first of which is primarily occupied with the ongoing matter of unexploded ordnance that has bedevilled Laos since the end of the United States’ secret bombing of the country throughout the Vietnam War (Bourdain almost can’t bring himself to eat the meals offered by the dirt-poor people doing the cooking, wanting only to apologise for his country’s actions) and the latter of which unintentionally finds itself tackling, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the fraught morality of international aid. (It does so in spectacular miniature: Bourdain buys out a street vendor, telling her to serve the kids who have been eyeing him eating at her stall, with the result that a massive line forms and fights break out.)

Parts Unknown has been even bolder in its commitment to current affairs. Season three’s “Russia” episode, shot in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, reveals perhaps more than any other where Bourdain’s interests increasingly lie. He meets Boris Nemtsov, the liberal leader who was murdered the following year, and Alexander Lebedev, the publisher of Novaya Gazeta, the famous independent newspaper where Anna Politkovskaya made her name before being gunned down in her apartment building 11 years ago. There are shots of the food coming out – and shots of the shots you inevitably wind up drinking in Russia – but very little discussion about it once it’s on the table (though there’s a little bit about Lebedev’s potato-farming interests). It’s an episode almost exclusively dedicated to Russian politics under Putin, and Bourdain has no reservations (I’m so sorry) about telling us what he thinks. One might also point to the harrowing episode about Massachusetts, in which Bourdain visits the kitchens in which he first started cooking and the alley in which he first bought heroin. Talking to doctors, narcotics officers, kitchen-sink drug dealers and a support group for former prescription drug-turned-smack addicts, he puts together one of the best hours on America’s opioid epidemic you’re likely to see. The episode ends – it’s a food show, right? – with a clam bake.

Obviously, food continues to feature prominently in Bourdain’s television work, and his latest literary offering, Appetites, is a cookbook. In an excellent review of Appetites for Canada’s Globe and Mail – I defy you to name anyone else on the planet who could command space in the literary pages with a cookbook – Jen Agg noted that even here there’s a subtle political element to what’s going on. “He’s reaching into the subconscious of middle- and lower-class America to pull out these recipes,” Agg writes. “But this is also the same Anthony Bourdain who is one of the most well travelled people on the planet, so the overwhelming majority of his comfort food recipes are from far-flung places such as Kuala Lumpur and Budapest ... This subtle drawing of similarities between American and ‘foreign’ food is, to me, the best thing about this book – not that the flavours are the same, but that the feelings comfort foods evoke in people are.”

It’s a good observation, if not a great sentence, because it recognises the key thing about Bourdain’s work: the fact that, because food is really about people, food is itself, by definition, political. Indeed, Bourdain recently narrated a film about food waste, Wasted!, which is available online. “I don’t like the idea of being an advocate,” he said in an interview about the documentary. “But this is an area, this is an issue, that goes fundamentally against my instincts as a long-time working cook and chef.”

The structure of his television work remains as simple and straightforward as his prose: Bourdain visits a place, tracks down a local fixer or chef or cab driver (or, in Hanoi, Barack Obama), and chows down for the next 40 minutes or so. But the manner in which he does so – indiscriminately – is entirely at odds with the approaches taken by every other celebrity foodie you could name. Bourdain means it when he says that food is for everyone and isn’t that important anyway. (There’s a reason he gives craft beer a hard time and claims not to give a shit about wine.)

This isn’t an argument being made by any other food show on the market. It certainly isn’t an argument being made by any of the food magazines on our supermarket shelves. Early last year, despite my better judgement (and theirs, as it turned out), I found myself working for a “premium” food magazine. Its primary goal was to be that most horrid of things: an aspirational title.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to something, of course. But when the thing that one is aspiring towards is the ability to make mango tiramisu or deconstructed lamington, or to whip a superfood-based smoothie, on the basis of the pretty pictures in a magazine sponsored by a major supermarket chain ... well, that’s a little different.

Last year, accredited dietitian Melanie McGrice told the Herald Sun that a growing number of Australians were falling victim to “food fad peer pressure”, particularly when it came to so-called superfoods, including many people who couldn’t afford to.

“I’ve seen people who can’t afford basic fruit and vegetables spending unnecessarily on things like coconut water because they feel pressure to purchase,” she said.

I put together a rewrite of this piece – it was my job to regurgitate others’ work with a bit of snark thrown in for flavour – realising as I did so that the result would never see the light of day. How to report the news of the moment without acknowledging that all our previous articles about kale and goji berries and gluten-free diets were in fact bullshit designed to make people buy shit? I tacked on a half-hearted ending about how we tried to make all our recipes healthy and cheap. But my suspicions proved correct: the article was never published. The last thing we wanted to do was point out the inherent classism of what we were doing.

Bourdain has no time for this sort of thing, and doesn’t believe that you should, either. For every fine-dining establishment he features on his shows – and he admittedly visits some of the best in the world – he features ten or more no-name street vendors you wouldn’t be able to find if you tried to.

The “Istanbul” episode of No Reservations is a good example of this, though you can pretty easily find the döner place he eats at. He later accepts an invitation to dine with his fixer and her family. The family in question was no doubt vetted in order that this could happen, but he still calls the breakfast they enjoy together the best he’s had in town. I don’t doubt it.

Or consider his excellent episode in the American south-west with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, in which the pair visits crappy diners, eats a bunch of greasy hangover food, and then cooks a basic pasta at the Rancho de la Luna recording studio in Joshua Tree, California. Or – perhaps most relevantly – consider the “how-to” episodes in which well-known chefs demonstrate how to make basic dishes that don’t require much time, money or effort. (A few more detailed recipes aside, Appetites takes the same approach.) There’s not a superfood in any of these dishes. There’s not a superfood in any of these episodes. It’s also telling that, no matter where Bourdain happens to find himself, he drinks the local beer without complaint, however tasteless, and has a great time.

This is more important than it sounds. In an age in which food and the ability to pay for it – not to enjoy it, necessarily, but to tell people later that you ate it – has become a kind of whack social currency, Bourdain has fashioned himself as the anti-foodie foodie, the guy who insists that food can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, at any time and at any pricepoint. He wants his viewers to aspire, but only to their own enjoyment. The rest of the culinary-industrial complex, in striking contrast, doesn’t. Its sponsors don’t make money that way.

The gradual but undeniable shift in the content of Bourdain’s work – if not its tone, which remains an appealing mix of irreverence, moral seriousness and occasionally a little cheesy wistfulness – has no doubt contributed to his appeal to journalists as a go-to cultural commentator. As has his willingness to talk on the record without taking any prisoners (and, I suspect, the fact that he has the imprimatur of CNN behind him).

Last December, Eater ran a long-form interview with Bourdain about the election of Donald Trump. We can probably now see it as the point at which his persona began to undergo its most radical change, at least as far as the wider public’s perception of it is concerned. (There was little in the interview – in terms of what he said or how he said it – that followers of his work and the shifts in it would consider especially new.)

“I think to mock constantly, as so much of the left has done – to demonise, to ridicule, to treat with abject contempt people who live in a very different America than they live in – is both ugly and counterproductive,” he said, pointing out that he’s travelled through that “very different America” enough times to know that, well, some really nice people live there, and are just trying to get on with their lives. He also said, recalling his comments about not wanting to be an advocate, that “I have really no – zero, I don’t feel that I have any – responsibility.”

But that was then. In the past two months, Bourdain has become one of the most unequivocally outspoken male commentators, famous or otherwise, to have weighed in on the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. This is in part because Bourdain’s partner, the Italian actor and filmmaker Asia Argento, is one of the women who has gone on the record to level such allegations at the disgraced mogul. It’s also because the Weinstein affair has inspired women in the restaurant business to stand up and call out insitutionalised sexism in their own industry. (It’s also because Bourdain is a good person.) In late October, New Orleans chef John Besh, who has appeared in Bourdain’s television work, was forced to step down from the group of restaurants he owns after the Times-Picayune reported allegations that Besh’s company ignored sexual harassment claims and that Besh himself had engaged in harassment himself. Bourdain had already been going after Weinstein and his enablers on Twitter with a ferocity unusual even for him. Now the world he grew up in – the world he wrote about in the book that made him famous – was under fire, too.

His response has been a masterclass in how to own up to something. Not for Bourdain the equivocating of your Matt Damons and Ben Afflecks. In an extended interview with Slate, Bourdain put it this way: “I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in [Kitchen Confidential] did I provide validation to meatheads?’

“[T]he system itself, from the very beginning, was abusive, was male-dominated and cruel beyond imagining … [The Besh affair] is an indictment of the system.”

This reminded me of a line from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the late journalist’s excellent book about the Vietnam War: “You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” I’d eat my shoe if Bourdain hasn’t read that line and let it linger a little. His work has always suggested it, and continues to suggest it now, despite his comments deriding responsibility – a position that, in any case, is beginning to fall away.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

Editor’s Note December 2017 – January 2018

Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership has moved from merely ineffectual to disastrous, and he appears incapable of righting the ship. (This would require, at the very least, an acknowledgement of error – a developmental step beyond the prime minister to this point.) No one needs a recap of the overlapping failures; suffice to say, good government now seems beyond the Coalition.

Something else has become evident in recent months: Australia is better than its government. 

If the same-sex marriage survey proved anything, it is that social change doesn’t rely upon a supportive government. The public gave up waiting and forced progress upon a recalcitrant joint party room. The momentum has been unstoppable.

Parliament will eventually legislate for marriage equality, but the public should be under no illusions as to how it came about, or why. Or who deserves credit for it.

The Coalition’s modus operandi of delay, avoid, downgrade or shut down – whether it be on the NBN or on climate change, towards asylum seekers or the LGBTI community, or on Indigenous recognition or the republican movement – will most likely leave Turnbull consigned, if we could borrow Noel Pearson’s phrase, “to a footnote in Australian prime ministerial history”. Right beside Tony Abbott.

In his essay for the Monthly’s summer issue, on the Coalition’s betrayal of the Indigenous recognition cause, Pearson pegs Turnbull for his mendacity and unprincipled opportunism. Pearson has discovered, from bitter experience, that Turnbull is “trapped by his political situation: devoid of capital, hostage to the conservatives whose leader he had stabbed in order to gain the prime ministership, and without the gumption to break his captivity”.

Pearson is also right about this: “This [Uluru statement] agenda will not die. It is the agenda for the future. This setback … is not our destiny.”

Turnbull gave up his chance to help shape this destiny. Australia will leave him and his party behind.

On a somewhat sunnier note: Thank you, readers, for your support of the Monthly in 2017. Your summer issue awaits, and it’s a ripper.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.

@nickfeik

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