Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Australia Day

Despite my general loathing of patriotism, I quite like Australia Day. It's not the kind of thing I like to participate in, but I like the fact it's there. Because for all the great and mighty flaws of this country, there's a lot to like about it. For all the deeply objectionable and repellent aspects of Australian culture, there's much in it to love and admire. And for all the times I despair at the ignorance and malice of the Australian people, there is also courage and kindness and integrity displayed by them every day.

So Australia Day, I think, is a pretty good idea. In fact, it's a lot like Christmas: a welcome holiday, a good excuse for getting together with loved ones, and an opportunity to reflect on what's important to us.

Funnily enough, it's also exactly like Christmas in that holding it on January 26 isn't really right.

This isn't because I think Australia Day is a celebration of an invasion. I don't think the Australians celebrating on January 26 are celebrating invasion. That's the whole problem: we're celebrating the good, the positive, the things we love about our country - but we're doing it on a day that has nothing to do with any of those. We're not celebrating an invasion, but we're celebrating on the anniversary of an invasion, and that seems, to put it mildly, a bit odd.

January 26 doesn't fit the bill for a national day in any respect. It doesn't mark a moment of discovery, or of great achievement, and it certainly isn't the date of any national act of creation. Australia, the modern country, didn't begin on January 26, 1788: what happened on that day was the establishment of an imperial penal outpost on land that quite clearly did not belong to the people doing the establishing. The people who lived here didn't want the colonisers here, and most of the colonisers didn't want to be here either. It was an invasion, and one that not even the invaders would have taken much pride in.

Frankly, there is just no reason for us to feel a passionate connection to the current date of Australia Day. That it was an important moment in Australian history is beyond doubt: that it was a great leap forward for humanity, or an achievement to revere, is an absurd suggestion. So even if you have no personal objection to Australia Day being celebrated on January 26, you can't seriously have any deep and abiding affection for it.

And what that means is that the only people who truly feel strongly about the date are those who are opposed to it. Those who recognise that it's the anniversary of an invasion that kicked off a shameful history, and think that's an inappropriate date on which to celebrate the best in our nation. Those who see it as a day on which to reflect on the wrongs of the past and how they may be avoided in the future, rather than throw a party. And most importantly, those who are made to feel, by the choice of date, that they are being excluded, that by placing the national celebration on a day of sadness Australia is telling them that their people, their heritage and their culture are less Australian than the rest of us.

So if you're a non-indigenous Australian, with no particular attachment to January 26, why would you want to make your fellow Australians feel that way? Why would you not want Australia Day to be more inclusive, a more genuinely all-embracing recognition of our country's best qualities? Why would you prefer to continue the divisiveness and make every Australia Day more combative than celebratory? Why do you care so much about that particular date that you'd rather keep fighting than just pick a date everyone can accept?

There's just no reason. The debate over the date of Australia Day is one between those who feel passionately about the issue, and those who are arguing out of pure pigheadedness.

I like Australia Day, but while it's on January 26, it'll never be the real Australia Day that we should have.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ham Wars

What happens when you combine the year's two biggest entertainment juggernauts, and also you have far too much time on your hands?

This or something I guess.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Christmas

It's that time of year again! This is of course a phrase that will be correct no matter when it is uttered, but on this occasion I am referring to the Christmas period, a season of joy and festivity and people taking unconventional attitudes and thinking it makes them better than you.

Christmas comes around once every year, if you're a Christian of respectable stock, so you might think you're pretty well clued in on all the facts of the Yule. But think again, because I am about to blow your mind with some


Let's get going, Big Guy!

FACT 1: The word "Christmas" comes from combining "Christ", the name of our saviour, with "mass", meaning "weight". Originally, Christmas was the one day a year when Jesus would visit the temple to be weighed. If he had put on weight, there would be wild rejoicing, but if he had lost weight, the emperor would have the people whipped for not feeding the Messiah properly.

FACT 2: Christmas was illegal in Australia until 1952, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies had a vision of Fred Astaire singing Here Comes Santa Claus after eating an entire bag of magic mushrooms.


FACT 3: Although We Wish You A Merry Christmas is generally considered one of the most beloved of Christmas songs, Christmas is never actually referred to in the lyrics.

FACT 4: JK Rowling has confirmed, via Twitter, that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is gay.

FACT 5: Turkey only became the traditional Christmas meal after the extinction of the Plum Cactus.

I'd sure never have guessed THAT!

FACT 6: Although we celebrate Christmas in December, archaeological evidence indicates that the first Christmas celebrations took place in April, and that the holiday was known at that time as "Easter".

FACT 7: Different cultures have many different versions of Santa Claus, some far removed from the jolly fat man in red we know so well. For example, in Finland, Santa is depicted as a jolly fat man in vermilion, while the Turkish Santa Claus, though jolly on the outside, has a seething reservoir of repressed rage. In the Cook Islands, children are brought Christmas presents by a mysterious spirit called "Steven Asquith", who sets fire to anyone who sees him and will leave retirement home leaflets in the stockings of those who give him cookies. But all of those pale in comparison to the Brazilian Santa, who doesn't give presents at all, but comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to stage illegal dog fights in the homes of obedient children.

That's amazing!

FACT 8: Charles Dickens's classic Christmas tale "A Christmas Carol" was originally titled "The Fun Ghosts Who Gave Mr Spengler A Right Old Case Of The Willies". Dickens was forced to change the title after being informed that the word "Willies" was illegal, and in doing so he also changed the book's plot, from the story of Bilby Spengler, a clinically depressed barber who learns some difficult lessons after getting a ghost pregnant, to the story we know and love today.

FACT 9: The Christmas tree is not part of the biblical story of the nativity, but comes from an incident later in Jesus's life, when the Christ-child won a hundred dollars in a local breakfast radio contest by eating an entire pine tree on air.

FACT 10: Advent calendars kill more than sixty thousand people every year.


Monday, December 14, 2015

On Shame

One of the funniest things about having depression - and there are lots of very funny things about it, if we're being honest - is the way you keep hearing about the importance of "fighting the stigma". It's hilarious because so many people are scurrying around, wittering on about "stigma" as if that's the greatest challenge, as if we who suffer from depression are horribly beleaguered by other people's opinions of the illness. If only, we are led to believe, we could just change attitudes in society, it would be so much easier. We got to get rid of the stigma.

We're told this as if the media, the internet, the very world itself isn't utterly saturated with people starting conversations and exploding myths and shattering taboos and endlessly, unstoppably combating STIGMA at every turn. Reducing the stigma of depression is one of the twenty-first century's greatest growth industries: you'll certainly get a lot more praise for fighting depression's stigma than you'll ever get for, say, treating people who actually have depression. The noblest thing you can do with regard to depression, apparently, is to talk about it, because not enough people talk about it, and we won't ever slay the Depression Dragon until we can make sure there's not a single person left alive who doesn't talk about it every day of their goddamn lives.

But more than the Big Lie that We Don't Talk Enough About Depression, the insistence that we attack STIGMA is hilarious, because it assumes the stigma is an external thing. We bloviate about stigma as if any social approbation could possibly exceed the stigma that comes from within, as if it's even possible to worry about outdated attitudes to mental illness in the community when your mind is consumed with the unquenchable shame devouring you from the inside out.

Keep talking about stigma, as if stigma is a well-meaning idiot telling you to cheer up because they don't understand what's going on in your brain.

Keep talking and ignoring the stigma that is hearing your children cry because they're terrified by the outbursts of their father's broken mind. Keep talking because you don't know what stigma actually is, because you aren't sitting up in the middle of the night, staring into darkness and wondering how much damage you've done the kids this time, how many times as they grow up they'll remember the times their father lost control of his misery, how much their adulthood will be consumed by the lingering residue of a father's selfish self-destruction.

Keep talking as if there is anything in society's misunderstanding of depression that can possibly compare to the knowledge that you're ruining your partner's life because you can't help yourself, that every time you rush to the edge of the abyss to look longingly at oblivion you're killing a little more of the happiness of the people you love. Keep talking as if the real STIGMA isn't the guilt that you've caused yourself by forcing your own nightmare onto the shoulders of people who never did anything to deserve the burden.

Keep talking, and discussing, and conversing, and flaunting your overwhelming compassion, as if that famous STIGMA is anything like the humiliation of having the police come to your house, and threaten to pepper spray you, and take you away in handcuffs, for your own protection. And living the rest of your life knowing you so completely lack the most basic capacity for living as a functional human being that your own family has no choice but to treat you as either a helpless child or a dangerous animal, so beyond reason that talking to you isn't even an option: the only solutions available are pills and restraints.

I don't want to hear any more about stigma, because I don't care about stigma. The rest of the world can call me crazy, the rest of the world can call me a crybaby, the rest of the world can roll its eyes and say it's sick of my whining - and the rest of the world will do exactly that, and the ones who claimed to be the most understanding will be the first to tell me they're sick of it.

And the rest of the world can do that all as long as it likes, because I'm so ashamed and disgusted with myself that there is no stigma the world can inflict that is worse than the stigma I've grown inside myself. And all your efforts to combat the stigma will naturally achieve their main aim of making you proud of yourself, but they won't do a thing for me. Because I'm broken, and I know I'm broken, and I know my brokenness has hurt the people I care about time and time again, and I let that happen. I know that because of my depression, I'll always define myself by my reliable tendency to let people down. I know that my depression has poisoned my life and the lives of all around me, and I'll probably do it all over again, and worse, sooner rather than later.

So if you want to write a thinkpiece or a cute webcomic or a pithy tweet about the best way to rid myself of THAT stigma, go for it. But if all you've got is the same mindless trash about stigma and conversations and honesty, then feel free to keep it to yourself. We've talked too much about it already.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On Religion

I have some thoughts about religion. They are just thoughts, and I believe they are reasonably good thoughts, or I would not be writing them down. But they are still just thoughts, and I don't want them to be attacks, or even defences - if they are not expressed as well as I hope, I apologise in advance. It's not easy to find the right words, it's not easy to be the person one wishes to be at the best of times - anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. But the reason I write these thoughts down is not to campaign or argue or call anyone or anything out - I'm writing them down because it's frustrating to keep them inside, and I'm writing them down because it makes it clearer to me what they actually are.

I am not a fan of religions. I don't think there's any good reason to believe their stories, and I don't often think very kindly of their impact on the real world.

But that real world is one I live in, and it's a world full of religion, and full of religious people, and I know a lot of those religious people, and no matter how nuts I might think their various religions are, it'd be incredibly foolish of me to place their religious beliefs ahead of who they are, what they do, the imprint they leave on the world.

And the fact is mostly they're good, and they're kind, and even when they're not all that good or kind they're usually just ordinary blundering humans like we all are. And they surely think my total lack of belief in any gods is as mad or madder than I think their beliefs are.

So I can't follow any line of argument that says the way to judge a person's character is to ask them which holy book they invest their faith in. Even if there are bits of that holy book that horrify you.

But what I do believe, and I've gradually come to this belief over a lifetime of observation, is that a person's religion is not a club they join, it's a belief - or an identity - they carry inside themselves, and every religious person is committed to their own, often intensely personal, version of the faith.

In other words, you can never assume that you know what someone believes because they give their religion the same name as someone else whose beliefs you've looked into.

You could ask Fred Nile what a Christian is, and listen to all he has to say, and accept that what he told you was true, and the next time you met someone who called himself a Christian you would be almost totally wrong about what he believed.

Sometimes that argument is put in terms of "who's the REAL Christian?" Is Fred Nile the true Christian, or was Pastor Fred Phelps, or is Father Bob McGuire, Mother Teresa, Ann Coulter, Tim Costello, Kanye West?

Who among them follows the true Christianity?

Maybe they all do. We speak of "extremists", "militants" and "moderates", as if everyone under the same religious label is following the same religion, and the only difference between them is how strong their belief is.

But what if that's not the difference? What if the difference is that they're not members of the same religion in the first place? What if Fred Nile and Father Bob McGuire are both passionate, devout, committed Christians, but they are devout in two different faiths that happen to share a name?

This is actually not that difficult for we westerners to grasp, because we're quite used to thinking of Christianity in terms of different denominations. We don't expect a Catholic to think the same way as a Methodist, or an Anglican to think the same way as a Baptist, on everything, because we already have different names for the different sects. So it's not a huge leap to think of different Christians as belonging to different religions, or to put it another way, to different "versions" of religion.

Here in the west we don't have that same understanding of Islam: we're used to thinking of it as a monolith, and we tend to swallow the message that Islam is a religion with strict uniformity of belief.

And so when "extremists" tell us that they are being good Muslims by killing, and "moderates" tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, we who are not Muslims feel we need to make a choice of who to believe. So we see a passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is justified and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of violence. Then we see another passage from the Koran that seems to suggest killing is forbidden, and we say aha! Islam must be a religion of peace.

We get nowhere, because the reality is: Islam isn't A religion at all; Islam, like Christianity, is a whole bunch of religions, and some of them are so far apart from each other that they're barely even cousins.

I know Muslims. You probably do too. I know for a fact they don't belong to a religion that endorses terror and murder - I'm sure I would have noticed if they were going around doing that sort of thing.

And when I see people doing horrific things and claiming their religion endorses it, yes, I believe them. To think that the violence of the world is due only to religion would be absurd: to think religion is not involved at all would be just as absurd.

So who's the true Muslim?

Frankly, how should I know? I don't believe in their god, so I'm hardly in a position to opine on who he's smiling on. And it doesn't much matter to me.

But more importantly, I don't believe they're worshipping the same god at all. You can give your god the same name as someone else's god, and you can give the name of the religion based on that god the same name as someone else's religion, but saying that a god who wants you to slaughter and destroy is also a god who wants you to commit your life to love and generosity is, to my mind, ridiculous.

If I said, I believe in the god Bob, who wants me to shoot everyone I see in the face; and you said, I believe in the god Alf, who wants me to help the poor and extend the hand of friendship to all people; it's fairly obvious we are talking about two TOTALLY different gods.

Why would we think any different, just because the two gods had the same name?

This is why I'm troubled by talk of "moderates" and "extremists". It seems easy to alienate a person by telling them their faith is "moderate", because they believe in peace and acceptance. I know Muslims whose commitment to Islam is fierce and full-blooded, and completely compatible with a love of diversity, equality and freedom.

In short, the "moderates" do not differ from the "extremists" by the intensity of their belief, but by the very nature of their faith. And we who are not religious do not get anywhere useful by seeing Islam as a single religion in which believers are distinguished by greater or lesser commitment.

Instead, it's worth recognising that Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims we know and and love and live among and value as friends and colleagues, quite simply is not the same thing as Islam, the religion practised by the Muslims who gun down innocents and blow themselves up and behead their enemies.

You'll often see the repetition of a line that goes something like, "ISIS represents all Muslims the way the Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians". It's true, but not because there is a neat line we can draw between "true" Christians and Muslims, and "false" Christians and Muslims. It's simply because knowing whose religion shares the name of another's tells us nothing about what their beliefs are, and how their beliefs influence their behaviour.

That a person's religion could be so hateful and diseased that it would inspire murder is a horrible thing. But I can tell if a religion is hateful by the way the person who follows it behaves. Likewise, if you want to know what any person's faith is like, don't ask them what it's called: get to know them - what they believe will be illuminated by the person they are.

In summary: I remain no fan of religions. I am saddened by the horrors done in their names. But if we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking good people are not good people, just because of what their religion is called, rather than what their religion IS, we can only worsen divisions, and forget who our friends are.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Hard Questions

US Presidential candidate and political WAGAB (Wives And Girlfriends And Brothers) Jeb Bush - seen here informing the press of the ideal size for a sandwich - has made headlines with a bold claim.

'Hell yeah I would!' the up-and-coming Bush replied to the question of whether he would, given the chance, go back in time and kill Baby Hitler (by which the interviewer meant, Hitler when he was a baby, as opposed to an infant version of Hitler who ruled a nation of babies with an iron fist).

The reason this is an important question is simply that presidential elections are, as former president Michael Douglas said, entirely about character. And when you're trying to determine a man's character, it's vital to know just how committed he is to his convictions. It's all very easy to SAY that you're anti-Nazis, but are you willing to LIVE that principle? Do you have the integrity to follow through, to actually jump in that Delorean, head back to the late 1800s, and blow that infant's brains out? And if you don't, why the HELL should anyone vote for you?

But let's not pretend that killing baby Hitler is all you need from an aspiring commander-in-chief. There are plenty of other complex moral dilemmas that a president needs to be ready to tackle. Here are some other questions the American press might want to throw at the hopefuls.

1. Would you travel back in time and abort Foetus Hitler?

2. Would you travel back in time and trap Sperm Hitler in a condom?

3. Would you travel back in time and give Hitler's dad a vasectomy?

4. Would you travel back in time and make Hitler's mum fall in love with you instead of Hitler's dad, even knowing that it was possible your son would turn out to be Hitler anyway?

5. Would you travel back in time and kill baby Stalin?

6. Would you travel back in time and kill adult Stalin?

7. What if he had a gun?

8. Would you travel back in time and prevent the evolution of mammals, thus saving the world from every bad person ever?

9. Would you travel back in time and kill Martin Scorsese? Why/why not?

10. Would you travel back in time, if you knew that a side-effect of time travel was that you would become incapable of killing babies?

11. Would you shoot Saddam Hussein in the head, even though he's already dead?

12. Would you shoot Bashar Al-Assad in the head, if you knew the bullet would pass through his head and hit the Pope?

13. Would you go back in time to kill the baby Pope?

14. Would you go back in time to kill yourself to prevent yourself going back in time to kill the baby Pope?

15. Would you go back in time to kill Vincent van Gogh, if you suspected he was doing some pretty bad stuff when he wasn't busy painting?

16. Would you go back in time to kill Bill Cosby?

17. Would you go back in time to destroy the tapes of Bill Cosby's instrumental jazz-funk album, Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band?

18. Would you go back in time to kill baby Kyle Sandilands?

19. Don't you think Kyle Sandilands looks a bit like a giant baby anyway?

20. Would you feel bad if you went back in time and killed baby Kyle Sandilands and then found out you hadn't gone back in time at all and you'd just killed adult Kyle Sandilands because you thought he was a giant baby?

21. Would you go back in time and kill the giant baby from Honey I Blew Up The Kid?

22. Would you go back in time and kill the guy who invented hunger?

23. Would you go back in time and kill climate change?

24. Would you go back in time and kill Ronald McDonald?

25. Would you go back in time to kill all the other presidental candidates as babies? If not why not?

26. Would you go back in time to kill all the other presidential candidates as five-year-olds who are in the middle of singing the Alphabet?

27. Would you go back in time to kill five-year-old Hitler in the middle of singing the Alphabet, bearing in mind he'd be singing it in German?

28. Would you go back in time to kill baby Pol Pot?

29. Would you go back in time to kill baby Vlad the Impaler?

30. Would you go back in time to kill baby Ike Turner?

31. If there was a train speeding toward a fork in the track, and on one track there is your mother, and on the other track is a schoolbus full of children you've never met, and you can pull a lever to switch the train onto the other track, but if you don't pull the lever the train hits your mother, but your mother is currently pregnant with baby Hitler, but she is seriously considering an abortion, but she also has strong Catholic beliefs that still exert a pull on her so it's not certain, but on the other hand the schoolbus contains Baby Gandhi, but you just read a biography of Gandhi that paints him in a less flattering light, BUT also you have no arms, so to pull the lever you have to travel back in time and save yourself from the train accident that took your arms off, but doing that would cause the train to hit a pram containing baby Nelson Mandela, which member of your workplace would you eat first on a lifeboat?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Ideally, suicide would not be so frequent a topic of my thoughts. It's an exhausting thing to think about: wondering whether you should, wondering what would happen if you did, and much, much worse - wondering why your friends have.

The fact that I am unlikely to go more than a few days without reflecting deeply on the logistics and advisability of self-destruction is something I've come to accept as part of the normal round. Much of my thinking is quite detached in nature: I'm just thinking about suicide, not thinking ABOUT suicide...if you get me.

And even on those occasions when I'm actually considering it, I don't think I ever will. Partly this is cowardice. Partly it's FOMO - I just want to see what's going to happen. Partly it's a sort of fear of hurting my family that in my more optimistic moments I could call selflessness.

Because of course suicide is terribly selfish. This is well-known. Putting your own petty desire for oblivion ahead of the happiness of your loved ones? Ugh, who wants to be THAT guy?

It's true - killing yourself is not a nice thing to do to those people who don't want you to kill yourself. At my very very lowest, it may have been my ability to stay dimly aware of that fact that saved me - convinced as I have been that my family would be better off without me, the knowledge that at least in the short term they'd be pretty upset has held me back.

Because I don't want to be seen as selfish. Which is, in itself, a selfish reason to not do something, but if my particular kind of selfishness happens to produce the same outcome as genuine selflessness, I guess that's a win.

Of course, when I'm dead I won't know whether people are calling me selfish or not, so I'm still not sure why it matters to me. Maybe I subconsciously fear the existence of an afterlife.

But even if I am quite the selfish fellow, at least I am not as selfish as people who tell me not to commit suicide. Because God, THOSE people...

Why do you want me to stay alive? Because you'd miss me? You'd be sad? Perhaps you could stop thinking about yourself for a minute.

Maybe you could think about this: I suffer depression and anxiety - days when absolutely everything seems pointless, when I can't see any glimmer of hope anywhere and I'm positive that everything I do fails and everyone I care about hates me. Nights when an invisible boulder sits on my chest, an invisible rope tightens around my neck and an invisible adviser whispers to me that I'm going to die right here and right now.

Other times...things are OK. Some days I'm happy. Some days I can see the good things I have and the good things I do. Some days I can believe I have friends, even. Some nights I go to bed smiling and without a breathless fight or flight response urging me to throw myself onto the rocks.

But every day and night I get through feeling fine, I know the next subterranean low and the next blind panic is that little bit closer. One of the most important things to remember when you're suffering is that it will pass, things will get better. But any honest appraisal of reality will illustrate that it works just as well in reverse: when I'm feeling good, "this too will pass".

So if I've got to live my life like this, knowing I'm going to be pummelled by this over and over and over again, for no good reason, for however many decades I've got ahead...how selfish are you to tell me I have to endure?

It's not like an assessment of the world I live in gives me much external cause to rejoice in the value of life. This is a stupid, cruel, vicious world in which suffering is the rule and joy is the exception, and I'm unable either to ignore the nightmare that is humanity, or to do anything to improve it. There is murder and torture and tragedy filling the world to the brim every day, and it seems a hell of a lot more delusional to think there's cause for hope than to abandon it.

So, if a desire to leave this world is understandable...and if I, personally, spend most of my life either in pain or in the anticipation of pain...where does anyone get the idea that suicide is not a reasonable response to circumstances?

To quit my life now would be selfish. To tell me that I mustn't is surely at least AS selfish.

Not that I will. I'm still a coward, after all.