Sunday, April 29, 2012

Valuing the thinkers in politcal discussion

I liked this article by Mike Carlton.

I posted it on a friend's Facebook wall. A conservative-voting, but more-progressive-thinking-than-he'd-like-to-admit friend. One who has been (un)fairly critical of some of the 'scandals' surrounding the government in the last 18 months. I like to tell him he has a progressive inside waiting to burst out once he comes out of denial, which he doesn't appreciate it, but we agree on a lot of things when you get past the slimy surface of political discussion.

I liked the article because, while hardly policy-heavy, it looked beyond the surface (or headline) level judgements of the government, and noted that Julia Gillard's has actually been, at the very least a good economic manager - the media's primary measurement of government for at least the last 15 years, since reform went out of fashion. Also it has successfully implemented a good deal of legislation despite the hung parliament.

My friend dismissed it because Carlton isn't known to be balanced in his views. 'Come on!' I thought, 'that's it?? No criticism of the logic or arguements?' I just responded with a smiley face because, while we can have a strangely respectful political discussion, Facebook walls are dangerous ground for such discourse. Any nut can get involved and turn things sour, so I keep the politics to a minimum there, and save it for Twitter. I'll pursue him about it over a beer soon. I think he'll sheepishly concede a few points, so I should be mature about it in the spirit of appreciating open-mindedness.

Got me thinking though - have we just become barrackers again? The old ways of voting along family lines crumbled long ago. Although I do remember an 18 year-old arriving at a polling booth with his father, where I was handing out How-To-Vote cards for the Greens (for a friend!). His Dad instructed him to avoid us and take one from the Liberals and Family First representatives. As he walked past behind his Dad I quietly offered him one. 'Nah, I better not,' he replied. And they say we live in a democracy!

Yet swingers are the rise my friends, cynical enough about politics not to pledge their ongoing support to anyone. But just as we got wise, the mainstream media got particularly dumb. We switch more, but based on what? Policy? Scaremongering? Scandals? The Prime Minister's wardrobe?

Whatever the reasons, lots of people still tend to make up their mind about something and then stick to it. That's not to say it won't change - clearly views do change - but it takes time. Admitting you were wrong is not seen as noble but weak, inconsistent and/or an indication of unreliability, which is utterly counter-intuitive.

Was the I Can Change Your Mind About Climate Change experiment anything more than a waste of time, money and carbon emissions? Did anyone change their mind? Certainly not those involved in the show. And a massive 47% of voters in the online poll said they would never change their mind. Never. Regardless of what information comes to light. No scientist that takes themselves seriously would say that, and no human ever should. Those people may as well walk away from the debate, regardless of which side they are on, their closed-minded opinion has lost its legitimacy. I only hope many passionate Climate Change believers misguidedly voted 'No' they would never change their mind because they feared a 'Yes' result would look like a win for the skeptics. It's not. It's a (frighteningly marginal) win for reason. Anyway, chances are - and changes in the perception of Climate Change indicate - that many more than this number would actually change their mind, they just obviously don't like to admit it for fear of weakening their argument.

For the record, I believe in human-induced Climate Change, do not expect to change my mind and think environmental protection is crucial either way, but I voted 'Yes' (I would change my mind). I hope I would.

We chastise politicians who do as weakness or liars - even if you meant what you said (and the media will insist on a promise) but changed due to unforseen circumstances.

So back to Carlton and his fellow opinion piece writers, and the judgement of balance. By definition, no opinion writer is 'balanced'. They are writing their opinion. Some are more considered than others and address both sides of an issue, but all have their own values and beliefs and column inches are meant to be the space to test their ideas, and challenge the reader. Although some prefer to attract an audience by whipping up fear and frenzy.

My favourite column writers - and I would include Mike Carlton along with people like George Megalogenis and Ross Gittins - put their case intelligently and sensibly. I like Carlton because of the pinch of intelligent humour that probably riles the 'opposition'. Megalogenis is the most 'neutral', but I suspect conservatives view him as a leftie. I'd add David Marr to the list but then my apparent left-leaning view of the world becomes even starker and I can be dismissed as well!

But I'm exhausted by the old view of left and right. It's fucking outdated and childish, far too basic within a complex economic, social and environmental policy discourse. Politics is not sport where you pick your team and stick with it, your view of heroes, villians and umpiring decisions often defined by who your team is. My values define my vote, not the other way around.

And yes, I'm more likely to read articles by people who I respect, who, in turn, are likely to share my values - or have they helped shape them? I don't read Fairfax more than News Ltd press because I'm a progressive, I read it because it takes the news a little more seriously. Not enough, but more. I like MediaWatch because it exposes just how much of a mess the whole lot (commercial media) are. Again, my disappointment in the commercial media's general inability to maintain it's credibility probably shoves me into the leftie camp. So be it.

I'll read and respect columnists that take a serious view of politics, with an interest in the good of the community rather than bitter ranting, sensationalisation, old-school point-scoring or shallow reporting of polls and popularity. Michelle Grattan, for instance, seems to me to be neutral, but has little of substance to say.

I don't care who they vote for as long as they're rational, reasoned and encourage - rather than undermine - mature discussion. We should read articles of merit by people who share and challenge our values, question them equally and form a judgement. It's not easy though.

An informed electorate is the antithesis of party or ideological loyalty though. We all need to be able to think it all through and feel free to express a polite, engaging opinion without fear of being wrong. We're only human.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The making of a music snob

I always wanted to be part of a minority. Think it's tough being different, try being just like most of the people around you, not knowing who to identify with...

But good news! I found my niche. In the great tradition of minority identification, the revelation came via a slur in response to my dismissal of The Voice. But really it's been right under my upturned nose for a long time - I am a music snob.

The term is thrown around endearingly among my own kind. But used against me just because of my stubborn refusal to be herded in the one direction of the masses by the latest commercial karaoke contest, it hurt.

I can see the entertainment value of the show, but I have no interest in its existance whatsoever and would happily avoid it altogether if it weren't being talked about by goddamn everyone. And so I rant.

Surely after ten or more years of reality television scouring the country for the next best voices, we've either drained the talent pool or proven that a lot of people can sing or even play guitar, but few can write a song.
Would Thom Yorke make it onto one of these shows with his lazy eye? Or John Darnielle with his odd voice? Elliott Smith with his gloomy tone? Tim Rogers with his ruggedness and inability to keep his shirt on ... OK, he'd probably do well. Or Paul Kelly? Would Paul Kelly - one of Australia's greatest songwriter's, with his shy, plain looks and everyday voice - make it on any of these shows by singing a few bars of a song, his or someone elses? Record execs have been trying and failing to find talent this way for decades. It's precisely why we have an Indie music scene.

I don't care if you watch it, I really don't. But please, please don't take it too seriously. Because if you're in it for the music, instead of sitting on the couch watching the idiot box, you could be sharing a beer with real people in a local bar, checking out a genuine band playing their own music with no rules and no competition to constrain them. Artists plying their trade on the slow road for the love of it, playing to share a moment with other music lovers, not chasing 15 minutes of fame by making an immediate superficial impression on has-been popstars judges. The Voice's angle is that it's 'blind' judging - presumably removing the superficial visual nature of pre-incarnations. But remember two things: contestants that make it onto the stage have still been carefully chosen in pre-production auditions; and Australian Idol gave us Casey Donovan as a winner - a shy, young, overweight Indigenous girl, refreshingly far from the popstar mould. These shows are as much about manipulating a narrative as looks. They realise we're at least smarter than that. But they don't foster careers. Casey Donovan was a victim of the very supericiality her achievement was supposedly rebuffing.

My problem is: I. Love. Music. As far as art goes, it's the one that speaks to me the most directly, the most powerfully. It can express the whole range of emotions, and capture moments and feelings in a way words can't. It's emotional lifeblood. And I can't watch these shows without wanting to yell at them: for missing the point; for for stripping the music of it's meaning and injecting an ungodly dose of glitz to make it entertain as large an audience as possible; for playing on the genuine premise that there is a lot of undiscovered music talent out there, and then refusing to really look for it; for being so arteficial and contrived; for exploiting naive talent. Emotions and contestants are manipulated. Winners are exploited and often end up worse off.

Don't even start me on Young Talent Time.

I'm not criticising anyone who watches it, really. Did I say I don't care? I'll probably get sucked into Big Brother again when it comes back this year, so what? We can't be intellectual all the time. It just saddens me that a music talent show can draw such an audience and ignore so much genuine artistic, creative talent. Amidst all the flash-in-the-pan popstars - and a couple of persistent B-grade performers who now stoop to tweeting for cash - the only genuine artistic talent I know of to come out of these shows in Australia is Lisa Mitchell, finishing sixth as a 16-year-old in Australian Idol in 2006.

But exploring real talent wouldn't be so popular I guess. The deeper you go with art the more it branches out - we're all moved by and relate to different tones and tunes. It's the beauty of being human, we're all different. So you have to keep it shallow to reach the largest possible audience.

So when friends talk about this music, I just want to tell them how good we have it here in Melbourne - one of the best and easiest places on Earth to explore your taste through countless live music venues, fantastic public radio stations, independent music stores and glorious festivals. These are the places and events supporting and unearthing new music talent, not dramatic TV shows. And I want to share this great thing we have with them, so they can find more good music and share it with me!

I shouldn't care. It should be enough to enjoy it on my own and with the friends who share my passion. But when something bowls you over - whether it's a song, an album, a movie, a book, a poem - it's natural to want to share it, especially in the Facebook age. Maybe we some of us feel the need to share too much and come across like snobs when others - especially those swimming in the mainstream - don't see the beauty of our pristine little tributary. Maybe it betrays a lack of self-belief that I want others' to recognise the value of the music I like?
So I am a snob. Or maybe I'm just seeking validation; a lonely guy who should care less about what other people think. There are enough like me to feel part of a community.

I think it's time to renew my Triple R subscription.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Song - 'Dog Eared'

Another roughly played, poorly recorded song. All heart and no promise.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

On medication, depression and no more stigma

I take anti-depressants.

No big deal right? Not for me, but I'm wary of other people's perceptions. So, while I've been increasingly open over the last year or so about history with depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it's a little different when it comes to the meds.

I don't hide the fact but I don't generally mention it even when talking about my condition ('condition'? Ugh). I told a few close friends when I started taking Xanax because I kind of had to. I was advised to curb my alcohol consumption and that was not going to go unnoticed.

'Coming out' about my OCD last year, and subsequently talking more about the anxiety with more people was fucking liberating. It was a little terrifying doing so on national television, but in reality it was relatively easy being able to talk about it largely in the past tense - especially the most 'embarrassing', least understood part, the OCD, which seems to be essentially absent from daily life now.

Talking about medication, however, shifts the issue from recovery back to problem management for me, from past tense to present. At least, that's my suspicious assumption of how some people would respond. And as healthy as I am, as far as I've come on my recovery from OCD and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I may be on the pills for some time yet.

I worry about how some people might think of me differently if they know. Will they be more wary? Will they think I'm somewhat unstable? Would an employer think twice about my capability? Would a potential romantic interest be put off?

Lots of people still don't understand mental health (see, I don't even want to say 'mental illness'). I'm pretty determined to do my bit to kill the stigma, but it still beats me sometimes. It's difficult not to be wary of the lack of understanding or misguided preconceptions that might influence someone's perception of you if you wear it on your sleeve.

It's led me to lie - about reasons for being late to work when I've had appointments, on forms (mostly emplyment related) where I didn't consider my medication to be crucial information and was concerned about perceptions. Sadly, sometimes the truth can distort a person's perception of a situation more than a white lie.

In 2006 I started a new job two weeks late because it took the organisation that did the medical check that long to send through the 'OK'. I'd told them about my depression and medication, which was being managed. It pissed me right off. I got through school and university with good marks, mostly before getting treatment, so why should I be judged on it now as I'm recovering by someone who doesn't know shit about the circumstances? Does an employer - or outsourced medical checking organisation - have a right to know and judge me on the basis of a mental health issue that does not prevent me from being a fully functioning member of society? Hell no. It is no more reasonable a consideration than any number of other social factors - like use of drugs or alcohol, gambling, addiction to social media, etc - that could impact someone's work.

But things like that made me feel like it was something I should probably cover up as much as possible, and that was counter-productive. It wasn't until last year that I realised just how many people do understand, and that others will try, and the rest don't matter. Unless they're employing you I guess.

I'm increasingly indifferent about people knowing the details of my depression. It's part acceptance, part bloody-mindedness in the fight against stigma. I don't want anyone's ignorance to put me back in my box, the only way to change it is to be more open, even if some take a while to get it and others never do. There are enough quality, open-minded people to surround yourself with that the others don't really matter.

The stigma is all the more tragic though because of the prevalence of depression - it undoubtedly even infiltrates people who actually have depression.

My trepidation with talking about the meds might be a projection of the initial fears I held - that they would alter my mind, change my thoughts, affect my personality. They've done none of those things, at least not directly.  My thoughts have changed, my brain has been re-wired, but I did that myself. The medication simply eased the extreme anxiety I felt on a daily basis for most of my life, so that I could find a more comfortable head space to make necessary changes to my thought processe - naturally through education, cognitive therapy and things like yoga. And it's those are things that will have a lasting effect, the drugs are just a conduit, albeit an important one for me.

Others don't need medication at all, it's horses for courses.

But I hate hiding it. It's a central element of this thing that has been the most pervasive issue of my life. I hope I can come off the medication someday, sooner than later, but I accept I may be on them for a long time, maybe a lifetime. There will always be people who don't - or worse, are unwilling to - understand. No-one can be in my head and compare it to their own. Everyone is just a little fucked up - the interesting people anyway. The important people do, or at least try, and don't judge me on such spurious grounds.

More importantly, imagine if every person with depression came out and spoke up about it, and we could see just how many people it affects, across all sectors of society. The stats are their, but numbers don't resonate like actions. It would change the way people think about mental health, those who will never experience it, and crucially, those who are struggling. We'd see just how wrong we were/are to feel alone and misunderstood.

Mental health issues aren't visible. It is hard for someone who hasn't experienced it to interpret and understand. People's own fears come into play. I can't do anything about that. Except be open - which I'm trying to be more and more - for my own sake, and that of others with mental illness. I want to kick the stigma and misunderstanding square in the balls.

Recently I kissed a girl and she commented on the mild shake of my hands, something I get at times even when I'm calm. For fear of being thought of as excessively nervous or frigid, I told her it was from a history of anxiety - that seemed the lesser embarrassment. A friend was a little shocked I'd said so.

But I don't care. This is who I am, think whatever you will think.

I just. don't. care.

Yes. I take medication. It's no big deal.