Tag Archives: Guy Rundle

Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life

Karen Hitchcock, Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly (Black Inc February 2015)

qe57Like every Quarterly Essay, this one includes lively correspondence on the previous one. Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus drew thoughtful responses from a number of writers of the left, defensive missives from representatives of The Australian, fascinating psephology from Malcolm Mackerras, and more. Much of it was too technical for my pay grade, but one thing is clear to me: if you get into an argument with Guy Rundle, it would be unwise to let him have the last word – he’s very good at the devastating rebuttal.

A number of people have already tweeted that every Australian should read Karen Hitchcock’s essay on the treatment of elderly people in our health system. She is a general physician who has worked in large hospitals in several Australian states, and so has extensive hands-on experience in working with frail and/or demented elderly people. As she says:

There are two strong narratives in our culture about the ageing population and death. The first is that medicine is keeping elderly patients alive against their will – medicine is denying a death the patient desires. The second is that elderly patients are seeking to stay alive unreasonably – the patient (or their family) is denying an unavoidable death.

The essay takes these narratives on fiercely, and does a brilliant job of unpicking the ageist assumptions and fanciful versions of sickness and hospitals on which they are built. She marshals her own personal and professional experience as well as current research to mount a convincing counter-narrative.

She describes the way modern medicine is fragmented into specialities, a situation that makes it hard to treat elderly people with multiple conditions.

She explores the concept of futility: is treatment futile if it extends a person’s life for just a few days but those few days allow them to say goodbye to family? can a hospital specialist who is as drenched in ageism as the rest of us and has no personal knowledge of a patient be trusted to make a sound judgement about the futility or otherwise of treatment?

She savagely rips into the often heard argument that the increasingly aged population will make the health care system unsustainable.  ‘Sustainable’, she argues, ‘is just a word for “what we are willing to pay”.’ And the real challenge to the health system comes not from the aged but from ‘a population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future and who will require many drugs, doctors, operations (joint replacements, bariatic surgery, amputations, coronary vessel interventions) and hospitalisations’.

Advanced medical directives, documents that spell out ahead of time conditions that are not to be treated if a person is incapable of making their wishes known, are singled out for special opprobrium. Hitchcock is an excellent storyteller, and her story of 84-year-old Fred who came to hospital begging to be allowed to die is enough to win her case without any further discussion: he was wretched, and didn’t want to be a burden (an often heard an internalised version of the message with which older people are too often bombarded); she listened to him, encouraged him, treated him, and followed up some time after he was discharged:

I said, ‘Fred , you told me you didn’t ever want to come back to hospital.’
He said, ‘Of course I want to come back if I get sick. I get silly when I’m sick. I hate everything. I say silly things.’

Not all her stories have such cheerful endings. Death does happen. But if we are to have a national electronic system where people’s advanced care directives are recorded, then these directives, she argues, should be reviewed regularly, even monthly, by the people whose lives they concern.

The essay discusses the isolation that is the lot of many elderly people, including those who are placed in nursing homes when their families can no longer care for them. It argues that this is an issue that should be taken up by the society as a whole – ‘if we are to attend to the social needs of our elderly citizens both inside and out of institutions, then we need government interventions and funding, along with the community’s engagement and help’. What is needed, and what is beginning to happen in some places is

a shift in perspective: the elderly are not a growing cost to be managed or a burden to be shifted or a horror to be hidden away, but people whose needs require us to change our society. They are those for whom we are responsible and to whom we owe real care.

Another sacred cow the essay takes head-on is the idea that it is better to die at home than in hospital. My own father had himself discharged from hospital in Townsville when he knew he was dying, and was flown and driven the 500 miles to Innisfail because he wanted to die at home. I have no doubt that that was a good decision: he spent his last days surrounded by friends and family, being visited by a doctor he’d known most of his life and a nurse he’d known all hers. He died in bed beside my mother, his wife of more than 50 years. But Hitchcock makes it very clear that his situation was exceptional in the western world today. A hospital death can be a good death.

In short, this Quarterly Essay is a call to arms against the oppressive attitudes and practices which we have insinuated their way into our minds and practices around older people. I’m 68, not yet in the frail and/or demented group that Hitchcock is talking about. I hope I never will be. But reading her essay, I wonder if my GP’s slightly disturbing lack of interest in my symptoms on my most recent visit, which I put down to his having had a long day or perhaps the lack of drama in my presentation, might have grown from an assumption that once you’re past a certain age you just have to put up with a certain amount of suffering. And that’s partly Karen Hitchcock’s point: if the problems she writes about are chickens, then we are all roosts waiting to happen.
——
aww-badge-2015This is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus

Guy Rundle, Clivosaurus (Quarterly Essay 55)

1863957014Since I first met Guy Rundle’s writing in the late 1980s I’ve thought of him as two writers in one. He wrote brilliant scripts for Max Gillies’ stage and TV satires, and at the same time wrote formidably, even impenetrably, abstract prose for the Marxist periodical Arena. In Clivosaurus those two Rundles are working well together: the essay is bitingly funny where it needs to be, and provides much-needed serious analysis of its subject. Its prose, happily, is far from impenetrable.

The essay begins with an episode from the familiar Clive Palmer narrative, the epic weekend at Palmer’s Coolum resort just before the first Senate sitting of 2014.

‘I donnn’t wannnnn’t to see any more dinosaurs,’ said a small girl. ‘We’re going to see the dinosaurs,’ said her dad, pulling her along. The weekend was rich in analogy.
Over at the Coolum rooms, other big beasts were gathering. The PUP’s Queensland senator, Glenn Lazarus, the ‘brick with eyes’, rolled in with a posse of good ol’ boys, enormous men in male bling, tapping on BlackBerries as they walked. Palmer’s other media guy, Andrew Crook – improbably but inevitably trading as Crook Media – buzzed around, harassed and bothered. Then a golf cart pulled up, and Crook imposed himself in front of the two camera crews as His Cliveness struggled  out.

In general, the press has focused on the comedy of Clive Palmer, treating his entry into federal politics as if it was akin to his animatronic dinosaurs or his plan to launch a new Titanic, needing no further explanation than naked economic self-interest and his vendetta against the conservative parties of Queensland. This essay relishes the comedy, going so far as to include some of Palmer’s eminently mockable poetry. It also goes into the swashbuckling history of the Gold Coast and Queensland conservative politics, in which Palmer has been a player. But it goes on to argue that behind the twerks and twaddle is a consistent political outlook rooted in Palmer’s Catholic centre right background:

Palmer has been completely consistent in doing what he said he’d do – vote to abolish the carbon and mining taxes – and completely in accord with his stated beliefs in developing a set of policies in response to the surprise budget. For six months he has said he and his party would not agree to the Medicare co-payment, the harsh new arrangements for unemployed youth, an increase in university fees or ‘assets recycling’, and he hasn’t. Much of what he was willing to compromise on with the government involved issues and policies peripheral to his philosophy. His rapid deal-making, a legacy of his real-estate and mining-lease years, and his ability to package and repackage sets of options at a rapid pace seemed to bamboozle people, to convince them that anything was up for grabs. Yet this was nothing more than the horse-trading that is a necessary part of politics everywhere else, but that has been lessened by the lock-step nature of the Australian party system.

Perhaps the essay’s final movement is its most interesting. ‘It is not Clive Palmer per se,’ Rundle writes, ‘ that is the source of this merry dance we have been on in the past six months.’ He goes on to discuss what he calls ‘the now sclerotic apparatus of Australian government’, by which candidates who receive a tiny fraction of the primary vote can gain seats on the Senate, and the way the major parties and the media have vested interests in not challenging that system. People may be upset at the disruptive effect of Clive Palmer and the PUPs wielding such power, but just imagine if it had been Gina Reinhart or someone similarly lacking in Palmer’s social concerns (such as they are) had bought their way into parliament the way he did! What’s more, we have

a Treasurer whose family fortune is constituted by his wife’s skills as a banker, and whose family’s future fortune will be considerably affected by the general decisions the Treasurer and his party make on taxes, interest rates, deductibility and the like. The party system masks the latter set of interests – Palmer’s, at least, are right out there where we can see them. … [In] the longer term we will only have come out of this period successfully if we are pointed towards an era when big beasts no longer, with such impunity, stalk the land.

So this started out looking like one of the Quarterly Essays that probe the personality of a public figure, or explore the way they appeal to some generalised Australian national psyche, but it turns out to be a call to action on a serious problem with our ‘democracy’.

Overland 211

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 211 Autumn 2013

OL211As a happy subscriber (and not only because I won some free chocolate in last year’s subscriberthon), I’m glad to read in Jeff Sparrow’s editorial in this issue that although Overland is now a project, of which the print journal is only one part, the printed object will continue to appear regularly for the foreseeable future. I am one of the many people who, he says, ‘still like to read (in particular) long essays, literary fiction and poetry on paper, away from the distractions of their iPad’. I also enjoy the synergies that can arise within the bounds of physical covers, quite different from the boundless variety of the online world.

An example of what I mean by synergy occurs in the play of ideas and perspectives among: ‘The one day of pure form’, in which Guy Rundle argues that Anzac Day is a weird commemoration whose meaning can and does change to suit the needs of whoever happens to be in power; ‘Peregrinus Requiescat’, a short story by Warwick Newnham that, beneath a sophisticated play with form and some not always correct or correctly translated Latin, is moved by a straightforward impulse to honour a man who died in combat by marching in his place on Anzac Day; and Barry O’Donohue’s poem, ‘Vietnam ritual’, whose speaker is a Vietnam War veteran free of any commemorative or romanticising impulse. ‘The innocence of Australians’ by Ramon Glazov, a review of a collection of short stories that imagine terrorist attacks in Australia, takes on a different hue in the context of those three pieces. Glazov sees in most of the stories an inability to imagine a plausible motive for attacking Australia – because after all, so the ‘thinking’ goes, we’re innocent global citizens in the sense that what we do hardly matters, whether it’s sending a token force to kill and die in the US’s wars, or opening another coal mine. This presumed innocence isn’t the same as the ‘pure form’ that Guy Rundle sees in Anzac Day, but the two concepts talk to each other interestingly.

Synergy is there again in the way one’s mind bounces between ‘The possibility of patronage’ by Anwyn Crawford, a curmudgeonly piece about the limitations of crowd-funding, pop-up galleries and other innovative ways of getting artists and money together, and ‘Paying the writers’, in which Jennifer Mills and Benjamin Laird are set up to debate responses to the trend to expect writers to accept ‘exposure’ as recompense for their work, but can’t help agreeing that some form of collective action is desirable. That bouncing affects the way one reads Alison Croggon’s characteristically elegant column ‘On Homelessness’. She doesn’t connect her two experiences of homelessness with being an artist except to imply that writing was her way of keeping her sense of self intact, but in this context one wonders if poor compensation for writing may have had something to do with the problem in the first place. And then there’s Judy Horacek’s cartoon parodying a current credit card ad: ‘A career in the arts: priceless. And for everything else, there’s dumpster diving.’

There are also stand-out stand-alones. In ‘Pump’, Stephanie Convery tells of her participation in a women’s body-building course, which manages to challenge some aspects of sexism and male domination while bowing to others: the article includes fascinating history, high comedy, memoir and challenging analysis. Apart from some Melburnian sneers at country Queensland, ‘All those women’ by Jacinda Woodhead is richly empathetic: in the context of Queensland’s dire abortion situation – abortion is a crime except under closely defined conditions; it’s hard to access, expensive and stigmatised – Woodhead presents a portrait of tiny anti-abortion, anti-war group Protect Life. While recoiling from their politics on abortion, she and pro-choice activists she interviews communicate a respect for their commitment to principles and sheer stamina. Jill Dimond’s ‘Ned Kelly’s Skull’, which justifies the phrenological cover image, includes a fascinating look at some eccentric colonials. Giovanni Tiso makes some alarming sense out of recent events in Italian politics in ‘The Net will save us’.

In the poetry section, I was relieved to see a couple of bird poems, since current Going Down Swinging submission guidelines specifically rule out ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’ and it would be a shame if birds were to disappear from Australian poetry altogether. I’m grateful for The shearwaters by Jules Leigh Koch, ‘a long tideline / like a driftnet / to fish for stars’, and I probably would have loved ‘The swallows in Saint Peter’s Square’ by Luke Whitington for its name alone.

Not all those links will take you to a full article, at least not at the time of writing, but be patient. Overland does tend to put just about everything online in the weeks after an issue comes out. Or you could buy a hard copy and find your own synergies.

Overland 210

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 210, Autumn 2013

210-overland Your mileage will vary, but the article in this Overland that stands out for me is Beyond denial by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, which argues that ‘the phenomena of science denialism, emissions trading and geoengineering are not in fact unrelated or rival panaceas but rather constitute together the full neoliberal response to global warning’. The article makes a distinction between neoclassical economics and neoliberalism, describing the latter, in what I wish was a harsh caricature, as worshippers at the shrine of an all-wise market, who hold, for example, that ‘Science is not an independent mode of truth discovery: it is a boutique knowledge format only validated by “the marketplace of ideas”‘.

The neoliberal response to the climate change challenge is, if I understand the article correctly:

  1. Deny the science so as to distract attention from the crisis and buy time for commercial interests to find a way to profit
  2. Back emissions-trading schemes in order to divert political actors from using state power to curb emissions into setting up carbon markets, which won’t ever work, because the big polluters are already finding ways to go on polluting
  3. Develop grand geoengineering schemes that will make huge profits for corporations but will not address the root problem of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations or stop ocean acidification.

The article doesn’t come up with an opposing plan, but it gives a salutary map of the terrain. I recommend the whole thing.

Elsewhere, this issue strikes a nice balance between giving pleasure and holding the reader’s feet to the fire.

First, the pleasures include:

  • interesting chat from regular columnists Alison Croggon and Rjurik Davidson  about, respectively, Tolkien and Hollywood’s version of Second World War resistance movements
  • Francesca Rendle-Short writing about writing about her late father (as she has elsewhere), including poignant moments that will strike a chord with anyone who has a close relative with advancing dementia:

    [H]is hands dance largo, float and rise and fall in a slow movement set to its own tune, an adagio. First, he clasps them in front of his chest as though in a praying gesture, a supplicant hold where the palms lie flat against one another. Then he pauses a moment to pray, to ask for God’s blessing before the fingers start to stir larghetto. They loop first this way so the fingers interlace each other; then right then left, before rising up elongated in a slow, seesaw action. A ritual dance.

  • The cartography of foxes,  a deeply satisfying and unsettling short story by Theresa Layton that augurs well for Jennifer Mills’s tenure as Fiction Editor
  • Peter Minter’s report as judge of the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets, which is almost as enjoyable as the winning poems, particularly his description of how he read and re-read the submissions in the midst of domestic life
  • The winning poems, especially the winner, Augury? by Luke Fischer
  • An essay by Californian Aaron Bady that, after going on a bit about the Great American Novel, confirmed my decision not to give any cash to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, with an argument that chimes with my experience of The Hurt Locker. The movie succeeds as propaganda, he writes,

    because it never tries to glorify the protagonist’s obsession, never tries to rationalise it, defend it or even make it seem attractive … But it’s still the one we’re stuck with for two and a half hours … You have no choice but to identify with torturers whose motivations you understand, and with the victims of Muslim terrorists whose motives you are not allowed to be privy to.

  • Judy Horacek’s dark cartoons (I couldn’t find a link), especially one that should probably be in the ‘feet to the fire’ category, in which two people holding a ‘Save the Planet’ sign face a gang holding signs that read  ‘Save our Profits’ – she manages to be funny about discouragement.

And then there’s what Overland does so well, argument and analysis of the harsh realities of our times from a progressive point of view. Some highlights:

  • Alyena Mohummadally on being same-sex attracted, Muslim, and organised in Australia
  • Panagiotis Sotiris offering an alternative view of the Greek economic situation. His repeated calls for ‘struggle and solidarity’ as the necessary response to the fascist Golden Dawn, is little more than sloganeering shorthand, but where else can you find a clear challenge to the mainstream narrative about Greek laxity finally being brought to heel by the benign forces of the EU, the IMF etc?
  • Martin Kovan on the alarming number of ethnic Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years, mostly with fatal results. The article discusses how these burnings remain largely unnoticed in the West, ‘inside the narcissism of self-interested, racially conditioned and materially anaesthetised ethical immunity’, then focuses on the English Buddhist novice who self-immolated in southern France late last year. Kovan knew the monk, and his reflections are personally charged
  • Guy Rundle, self-described default Luddite, reporting on 29c3 – the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress, at which hackers confronted the rise of the total-surveillance state. He reflects on the relationship between hacktivism and the Left, in particular on what their different histories mean they can learn from each other. In doing so, he manages to end the journal on a note of restrained optimism.

I’ve included links to everything except the cartoons. Overland make its entire content available on line. It also publishes background interviews on some articles in its Editors’ Blog, which is one place on the Internet where the comments don’t make you want to run screaming from the room.

Shuttling wind

I’m genuinely sorry that Quadrant‘s Literature Board grant has been cut. Quadrant is one of a tiny handful of publications that has actually paid me money for stuff I’ve written. But Keith Windschuttle doesn’t do anything for his reputation, such as it is, for distinguishing between verifiable fact and self-serving opinion or even pure invention when he asserts, ‘This Literature Board has made a patently political decision.’ He characterises Meanjin, Overland and Australian Book Review as ‘overtly left-wing publications’ and asserts that they carry only a fraction of Quadrant‘s literary content.

Well, Meanjin and Overland may come out less frequently than Quadrant, and Overland may be described in the pages of The Australian as loony left. But for what it’s worth, I think Windschuttle is blowing smoke. I’m most of the way through the current Overland, and at a rough count I’d say all but 10 of its 104 pages are taken  up with literary content, as opposed to roughly a third of the 96-page issue of Quadrant I have to hand (March 2007). If Quadrant comes out twice as often as Overland, that suggests something like 64 pages of literary content to Overland‘s 90. Of course, it depends what you call literary: I’m including an analysis of the art of computer games in one publication and some intensely political book reviews in the other. Also of course, 90/64 is still a fraction, so Windschuttle’s assertion may still be literally correct. It’s been a while since I read an issue of Meanjin. I had a look at a copy in Gleebooks the other day and was deterred from buying it by the sheer number of words: tiny type and hundreds of pages. Good luck to them whose eyes are up to  it, I thought. Windschuttle’s claim looks even less plausible there.

As for the overtly left-wing qualities, I would have thought that Overland‘s left perspective was at least as unwelcome in Kevin Rudd’s parlour as Quadrant‘s right. Overland published Germaine Greer’s intemperate criticism of Rudd earlier this year, and the current issue’s one piece of political commentary, Guy Rundle’s ‘When the rubric hits the Rudd’ (terrible title), includes this:

Ruddism is a mode of post-social democratic labour adapted to Australian conditions and history, one that displays no real interest in challenging an atomised neoliberal social order and must therefore explore increasingly specific coercive measures in the management of a population.

Yes, Keith, one can just see Kevin on the phone to his minions at the Australia Council: ‘Send that man a pile of gold.’