This happened …

Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin. 

Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.  

There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.  

The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”  

Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.  

Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.  

UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government money anyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.  

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At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.  

UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne CaseySusan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.  

Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.

It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame. 

And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work.  COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news. 

The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.   

UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)  

It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.  

I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.  

I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.  

All that and more to come.  

Welcome to Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin

Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin

For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes and prejudices about refugee movement appear to be a complex mixture of apprehension about its economic consequences, bigotry, racism, and fears of terrorism. Since 9/11 Australian opinions about refugees have hardened on all sides of the debate.

A majority of Australians now appear to support a policy that claims to prevent refugee deaths at sea by discouraging refugee movement with off-shore confinement of people detained en route to Australia by boat—people commonly referred to as “illegal refugees” even though there is no such legal category of refugees.

In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin published the story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, describing a happy, well-organised, successful and wholly imaginary society. The story has no plot or characters. It is not really a ‘story’ at all. It is the literary version of a ‘thought experiment’.  1973 is also the year Australia adopted the 1967 Protocol on the status of refugees, which removed geographic and temporal restrictions from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is the brief period in Australian history, 1972–1975, when Australian families sought to accept several hundred young children orphaned by the war in Vietnam; and only a couple of years before the arrival of the first Vietnamese ‘boat-people’ in Darwin Harbor. Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is approximately the same age as Australia’s recent refugee history.

It is now supposed that Le Guin’s story is based upon an 1891 address by American philosopher and psychologist William James to the Yale Philosophical Club:

William James
William James

“Experience” of consequences may truly teach us what things are wicked, but what have consequences to do with what is mean and vulgar? … [I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which […] utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? 

— William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Le Guin’s story imagines exactly such a ‘utopia’. Hidden away somewhere, in the basement of a public building or in the cellar of spacious private home, a child has been imprisoned in dreadful conditions. When the young citizens of Omelas reach about eight to twelve years of age they are told about the circumstances of the imprisoned child. The citizens of Omelas generally feel the same way about the child:

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. 

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Le Guin goes on to explain how the people of Omelas cope with this knowledge and come to terms with the arrangement that has been made on their behalf. “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”

In the final paragraph of the story Le Guin tells us that some of the children and some of the adults of Omelas decide not to stay in the city. They respond to the conflict they feel about the imprisoned child by walking away. “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The meaning of the story is not so straight-forward as it first appears. Le Guin’s story sometimes appears on the reading lists for students of public administration and business courses. Why? It demands to know not only why people might decide to leave but, perhaps more importantly, how the majority of people manage to stay in Omelas, and what they do when they stay. The ones who walk away from Omelas may be the people who have decided the cost of happiness in the city is too high, or they may have given up trying to find ways to change it. Some of the ones who stay in Omelas may still be trying to think of a way to free the child from its prison. On the one hand ‘Omelas’ is a story about a kind of utopia, on the other it is a parable about a corrupt society whose citizens accept as necessary or reject as immoral the reasons for their contentment. What is the more moral thing to do: to go or to stay?

Noticing the similarity between Australia’s situation and the moral problems outlined by Le Guin and James adds new ideas to the national discussion about what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru, where men, women and children have been detained in order to dissuade others from attempting the sea voyage to Australia on the boats of people-smugglers. Finding both fictional and philosophical versions of Australia’s predicament, of our moral choices, opens up the possibility of examining the ethical statements made about this issue and trying to think about them in non-‘party-political’ ways.

Does Australians’ happiness depend on keeping people detained in offshore facilities? No-one would have to look very far to find evidence that many Australians believe there are good reasons to pursue policies that aggressively discourage refugees. Some of these reasons are racist or irrational, and some appear utilitarian:

These are the kinds of reasons that many people believe relate directly to the general well-being of Australian citizens and to the general happiness of Australian society. Your reactions to these reasons could be a litmus tests of the degree of your alignment to popular opinion in Australia. About 70 per cent of Australians accept some combination of these reasons, either alone or in addition to the argument that detaining asylum-seekers in offshore facilities discourages others from making the life-threatening journey to Australia by boat.

The question of how to prevent deaths at sea has become the principal reason justifying the detention of asylum-seekers. The other reasons I have mentioned play a role—as anyone can see simply by looking through the reader comments underneath any article about asylum-seekers on a public website—but preventing deaths at sea has been placed at the front and centre of all these reasons. Why?

We started to think about it like a ‘trolley problem’

Ben Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explains that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, clearly outside of Australia’s purview, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. As Mr Doherty points out, Australian governments have signed agreements with other countries to ensure border controls are tightened and the flow of refugees reduced. There should, I think, be more discussion about whether such arrangements are morally acceptable. We should all accept that deciding between one solution and another was always going to be difficult. It’s a terrible thing to have to detain people indefinitely or ‘release’ them into communities where they are despised and threatened. But this is better than allowing those who would follow to drown at sea, is it not?

This is what happened to Australian politics about ‘boat-people’ between August and October 2001—between the ‘Tampa affair’ and the ‘children overboard’ incident. In the middle of it all, and perhaps clouding Australians’ view of what was happening in the world and the chaos that had come to reign in our and the world’s politics, there was the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attack on the USA. And then there was an Australian federal election on 10 November 2001.

The panic about boat arrivals had begun before Tampa, but the children overboard incident clinched how the issue was to be perceived by Australians. Polls at the time said about nine out of every ten Australians agreed with the government’s new hard-line treatment of asylum-seekers. The matter was decided, and confirmed at the election, and henceforth, possibly for a very long time, the major political parties were in agreement that “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia”. Fulfilling this promise, imagined by John Howard, and articulated by Kevin Rudd (on 19 July 2013), was the principal success of the Tony Abbott government, which the Malcolm Turnbull government continues to support. This is what a clear majority of Australians want.

Note, though, that this is the new reason for an old decision. After the first refugee boat arrived in Darwin Harbor in 1976, the then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians were not persuaded. Every change of government and every new wave of asylum-seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language. Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority of Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. Australians no longer openly refer, as they did in the late 1970s, to their wish to re-introduce a White Australia policy.

The question is, therefore, have we simply found morally acceptable reasoning to support morally repugnant aims?

The politics of Australia’s moral dilemma has converted the question of what to do with asylum-seekers into a ‘trolley problem’:

What do you do?
 A runaway trolley is about to go either in one direction, where five people will probably be killed by the trolley (if you do nothing), or the other direction, where one person will be killed by the trolley (if you decide to divert it). Would you shove a fat guy off a bridge to derail the trolley? What if the only person killed was Einstein, or the smart girl who will one day cure cancer? What if the fat guy was a villain?

This problem was formulated, in the way we recognise it, by the British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot in an essay in the Oxford Review in 1967, and published again, later, in her book Virtues and Vices, and other essays in moral philosophy. (Foot died, at 90 years of age, in 2010.)  Her original formulation of the problem differs significantly from all the usual variants in a way that is not immediately obvious. You can read about the popular variant scenarios at the Wikipedia page, where there is also the relevant quotation from her essay:

Philippa Ruth Foot
Philippa Ruth Foot

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found guilty for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

— Philippa Ruth Foot

As Foot describes the different scenarios of her moral problem it is clear that each of the individual scenarios required different levels of involvement and sacrifice from the person who is to make the moral decision. The judge must accept complicity in an obviously illegal act. The pilot will sacrifice his own life even as he decides to cause as little harm as possible. The tram driver must make a quick decision about an imminent accident the consequences of which he will have to face personally.

In each scenario Foot describes she places the person making the decision near the centre of its consequences. Foot’s description of what has come to be known simply as the ‘trolley problem’ does not allow us to make a decision about what to do as though we were not actually involved in the outcome. In thinking about how to act morally in crisis situations, we must consider consequences and costs to ourselves.

In a similar vein, ‘Jarrahbelt’, a reader of The Guardian, added the following comment to an article about asylum-seekers on Nauru:

In December 1980 I had the great honour to be present at one of the most desperate and remarkable rescues in maritime history. The story is largely untold, unknown, uncelebrated. On the narrow main deck aft of a guided-missile destroyer of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy a number of young men, the rescue detail, good men and true, fought for an hour to rescue about 30 people from a river boat. The river boat shouldn’t have been in the middle of the South China Sea, not in winter, not in a tropical storm with 40-foot seas, but there it was. Grappled alongside by pure brute force. We were obliged to maneuver alongside them since their engine and steering had failed, a fairly tricky operation in the circumstances. It was no-one’s fault that our port screw went into them, no-one’s fault that the port screw guard came down on top of the women and children and babies clustered on the stern cabin roof. For an hour the rescue detail struggled. I lost count of the number of times we went over the wire to replace them, thinking they had been scoured off the decks by the ferocious ocean. A waterspout went over the bows at some point, the sleet was sideways, we may have been in a vast whirlpool, the wind did its very best to tear us off the ship. We were broaching very badly and rolling like a drunken elephant. But none of that mattered. The ocean would not have them. Our own lives meant nothing then. The lives of the US Navy seals who went into that terrible sea meant nothing to them. I don’t know how they made it back onto the ship, but they did, some of them bearing corpses, because the sea was not even going to have the dead. That’s what it was like. We saved 21 souls that night. They were taken back to Subic Bay and given new homes and lives in America.

I learned some valuable lessons that night. I understood that all human beings are exactly the same, no matter what their race, creed or colour. We all die the same way. We all have the same needs, wants, hopes and dreams. We all cherish peace, unless we are insane. We are all brothers and sisters under the same sky. To use people in the way these people have been used, as political pawns to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the Australian public, is beyond shame; it is beyond comprehension in an advanced country that holds its traditions dear and has offered its shelter to so many others.

I doubt very much that I will ever vote in another federal election, I’ll just pay the fine. The choice is between a coward or another coward, unwilling or incapable of raising the timbre of the national conversation to a place where the needs of common humanity take precedence over all else.

— ‘Jarrahbelt’ (a reader) in The Guardian

Jarrahbelt’s comment touches upon factors that have a bearing on Australia’s discussion of the current moral dilemma of our treatment of asylum-seekers: the historical failure of governments to raise the tenor of debate; placation of the public’s prejudices and confusion without open discussion of consequences of government decisions; and the role of personal and social sacrifice in addressing an urgent, life-threatening crisis.

In Australia, as in Omelas, there is little or no open, reasonable, detailed discussion of costs and consequences of the decisions that only appear to have been made by a majority, but in fact have been made on behalf of the majority to garner its support at the ballot box.

The contempt expressed in the media, from all sides of the discussion, prevents at the start any genuine attempt to persuade people whose opinions differ from our own. Political debate generally, and this ethical debate in particular, tends to herd people into one or other ideological camp, which have become like trenches that troops shoot from across a no-man’s land. Notable for their absence from the serious discussion of these issues are many of the very people who should be helping us in the discussion. Where are the philosophers and ethicists of our universities? Where are the economists, whose job it should be to help us think about the costs and the possible benefits of accepting more refugees?

If Australians are concerned about the spiralling costs, estimated to be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, of supporting refugees in the community, why can we not also have a detailed discussion about how best to spend the billions of dollars allocated to maintaining offshore detention facilities? Have Australian authorities adequately explored alternative strategies, for example, massively increasing the financial, logistical and practical support offered to Indonesian police and navy?

The debate in Omelas

This is what the debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers looked like in 2016, almost exactly forty years after Lam Binh arrived on a boat in Darwin Harbor. David Marr and Gerard Henderson, are openly hostile. They are, however, both citizens of the new Omelas. Mr Marr perfectly exemplified the revulsion some Australians felt when they realised their society had accepted the bargain William James described in his lecture on morals. Mr Henderson, if you listen to his words closely, did not accept the bargain either, recognising that there is a serious problem to be solved and, like many Australians, holding out hope that the government would solve it.

Those of us who decided to stay in Omelas were left with the struggle about what to do. If the lessons of moral philosophy are any guide, we should have considered more carefully what sacrifices we were prepared to make to relieve the suffering of the people we detained. As we delayed, we caused more suffering. The solution required imagination, compassion, daring—and sacrifice. Convincing Australians that this was the right thing to do was the perfect job for a true leader, but there was none to be found.

Related links

Posts about asylum-seekers and refugees at this site

  • Off-shore [20170830 drawing, 74x105mm] -
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Welcome to Omelas - Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes …
  • Take the pledge - … Take the pledge by sharing this graphic in any way you prefer. Download it and use it on Facebook. Send it in replies to emails from politicians. Use it as an avatar. Send the message to politicians that you will not vote for them if they support detaining asylum-seekers. More posts about asylum-seekers and …
  • Done in our name - Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them.
  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
  • Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.) - Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons … Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to …

Woolf, el-Sisi, Abbott and boy bands

Trying to imagine what she calls ‟that anonymous monster the Man in the Street,” Virginia Woolf visualised ‟a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff … occasionally wobbling this way or that as some instinct of hate, revenge, or admiration bubbles up beneath it.” The argument about whether such views make Woolf a bad person has been raging for a long while, and assume that we know what she meant by the remarks at all. I thought about them again when I saw Australian prime minister Tony Abbott shaking hands with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt.

Abbott excuses el-Sisi. “President el-Sisi is a reluctant jailer here. He wasn’t the president when Peter Greste and his colleagues were arrested,” Mr Abbott told ABC Radio. Abbott and el-Sisi know, I think, how Woolf’s shapeless jelly can be made to wobble with just a little push; and how little the jelly knows about who or what is doing the pushing.

PM Tony Abbott and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
PM Tony Abbott and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Many in Australia think that the current government is trading in distractions when burqas push war, privacy, performance and promises off the front pages of papers. [As it turns out, the plan to put burqas behind glass partitions in parliament was not an intentional distraction, but rather the panicked response to a rumor that the parliament was about to be disrupted by a posse of burqa-clad protesters.] El-Sisi has been accused of the same thing. An economic mess, power failures, rising taxes, and a government’s desire not to be seen as the morally soft option, all add up to a social climate in which minorities are easily scapegoated.

Whether by design or chance, Egypt is in the grip of an anti-gay hysteria. This hysteria now has a catchy anthem and a video.

A boy band, imaginatively called ‘Boy Band’, sings its confusion caused by ‟soft men” who wear tight jeans. The lyrics of its anti-gay song use words that pun on the Arabic equivalent of ‘faggots’ (see note, below). Three men burst into a room. They have their serious faces on. They begin to rifle through the belongings of a person, presumably the man in the photo on the wall. The video looks like a police raid set to music. (فمن مداهمة قامت بها الشرطة مع الموسيقى.)


In Australia we are worried about burqas. In Egypt they are worried about tight red jeans. I notice now that both Abbott and el-Sisi are wearing dark suits and blue ties.

Egypt: Eight men sentenced to three years in prison for ‘gay wedding’ video

Written by Chris Johnston and published in The Guardian on 2 November 2014:

A court in Egypt has sentenced eight men to three years in prison for appearing in a video that purported to show a gay wedding.

The video, which became an online hit after it was posted on YouTube in September, shows two men kissing, exchanging rings and embracing among cheering friends.

It was filmed at a birthday party held on a boat on the Nile.

The sentences, which can be appealed, were met with uproar from the families of the defendants, who demonstrated outside the court in central Cairo and were dispersed by police.

The defendants, who had denied the charges, stood silent in the courtroom cage as the verdict was read, one of them holding up a copy of the Qur’an.

The eight were arrested in September when Egypt’s chief prosecutor decided that the video was “shameful to God” and “offensive to public morals”.

At the last hearing, on 11 October, a spokesman for the justice ministry’s forensics department insisted the men were innocent.

“The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything,” Hesham Abdel Hamed said.

“The medical test showed that the eight defendants have not practised homosexuality recently or in the past.”

He was referring to anal examinations, a long-standing practice in Egypt that Human Rights Watch has condemned.

The New-York-based lobby group had called for the men be released.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but it is a social taboo, and allegedly gay men have often been arrested on charges of immorality.

In the most notorious example, 52 men were arrested in 2001 for their perceived sexuality, in what became known as the Queen Boat case.

In April, four men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for “debauchery” after allegedly holding gay sex parties where women’s clothing and makeup were found.

Human Rights Watch said in September that Egyptian authorities had repeatedly arrested and tortured men suspected of having gay sex.

Saturday’s sentences are the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gay people and atheists.

The campaign also targets liberal and pro-democracy activists and anyone who breaks a draconian law on street protests.

Note: The lyrics use the word “khawagat” in a pun linked to the term ‘khawalat’ (a plural noun), the equivalent of ‘faggots’ in English. In traditional Arabic ‘Khawal‘ is a man who has been taught and performs belly-dancing routines. In modern Egyptian slang it is an attack on a man’s sexual identity.

Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”

Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts. Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera.’ More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +
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