Notes from the class divide: Is Australia fair?

June 30, 2014

A couple of months ago, I observed that we were experiencing a unique (“zeitgeist”) moment of awareness and attention to inequality of wealth and the accompanying issues of social disadvantage.  The New York Times has set up an “income inequality navigator” page, and appears to be publishing almost one article a day about the topic.

The latest addition to this debate here in Australia is the recently released (June 11, 2014) report Advance Australia Fair? What to do about growing inequality in Australia.  This report was produced by the non-profit organisation Australia21, in collaboration with the Australia Institute and the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.  The report arose from a multidisciplinary roundtable of stakeholders and experts that took place at Parliament House in Canberra in January 2014 that explored the questions:

How should Australia respond to the evidence of growing inequality in wealth and health? Consider(ing) the measurable adverse consequences of income inequality in Australia, at individual, family and community levels … how they might be most effectively minimised through policy change?

The report summarises the situation thus:

Australia has a long and proud tradition of equality, but in recent decades the benefits of strong economic growth have flowed disproportionately to the rich. The growing gulf between those in the top range and those in the lower ranges of wealth and income distribution has profound effects on population health and wellbeing, on educational outcomes and there is increasing evidence that increasing inequality impedes economic productivity and growth.

The report concludes with “10 ways we can reduce inequality in Australia and preserve the land of the fair go,” and includes five key messages:

1. Inequality is one of the big issues of our time: it is growing rapidly throughout the industrialised world, and in Australia it is growing more rapidly than anywhere else except the United States of America.
2. Inequality is central to the question of what kind of a society we want to live in.
3. Inequality is bad for everyone: who wants to live in a gated community?
4. Beyond a certain point, inequality is actually inimical to economic growth.
5. Inequality is a policy choice: we can choose policies that reduce it, and we can choose policies that exacerbate it.

Advance Australia Fair? can be downloaded here.

There was some in-depth press coverage of Advance Australia Fair, including Michelle Grattan’s article in The Conversation, Jacqueline Maley’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald of June 14-15, 2014, and an ABC Radio National “Sunday Extra” forum on poverty in Australia on June 15th, which included Dr David Morawetz, an economist, psychologist and co-author of the Advance Australia Fair? report.

At the same time, ABC’s The Drum released the results of three survey questions about inequality in Australia. When asked if people thought that the standard of living for the next generation would be better or worse, only 21 percent reported “better” (mostly just “a little better”), 27 percent “the same” and 48 percent “worse” (mostly “a lot worse”).

Their second question asked if respondents thought Australian society is more or less equal and fair compared to 20 years ago.  The responses: 28 percent thought “more fair”, 23 percent “about the same”, and 43 percent “less fair and less equal”.

The third question asked “How important is equality and fairness to Australian society?” An overwhelming 92 percent said fairness was important and 89 percent said equality was important, with most believing these factors were “very important”.

The survey was based on more than 1000 respondents, although it is not clear how they were recruited. A biased sample perhaps? It could be, but surely a good indication of where popular thinking is heading on this issue.

Don’t confuse this report with a 2008 publication with a similar title and covering similar issues: Advance Australia Fair? Trends in small area socio-economic inequality 2001-2006 (Issue 20, July 2008, NATSEM, University of Canberra), sponsored by AMP.  This report takes a geographical look at the issue, and is also worthwhile.

Finally, here’s another good example of this high level of interest: the forthcoming (July 7-8, 2014) visit to Sydney of Professor Joseph Stiglitz  (Columbia University, ex-World Bank and the author of The Price of Inequality). His two planned events – one for the City of Sydney  and one at the University of NSW – were both booked out within hours and are now “waiting list” only.

The Price of Inequality book cover

Notes on the passing of Werner Dannhauser

June 29, 2014

A couple of months ago, Cornell University issued a fascinating press release: Professor Emeritus Werner Dannhauser, a former professor of politics and political theory, had died at age 84.

I remember Werner Dannhauser, because I studied with him at Cornell in the 1970s. I just checked my transcript (yes, I still have a copy): the course was entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” (Government 161), and I received a C-, the lowest grade of my university career.

Dannhauser was even then very eminent. But he was also very sickly, and I am astonished that somehow he would have lived another forty years. We were led to believe that he was going to die any minute. His tutorial assistants would carry him in to the classroom for every lecture, sit him down, and strap a microphone around his chest. He would then painfully whisper out a lecture which everyone claimed to be brilliant. We would all try to copy everything verbatim. His tutors worshipped him; we students were in awe, even if we did not understand what he said.

Then came the first assignment. I had such a hard time writing the first term paper (what can you write for a barely living intellectual treasure?) that I procrastinated until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, rather than sitting down to write after dinner, I went to see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” – for the first time. It was wonderful, as “Casablanca” always is. I cried when the French sang “La Marseillaise”.

I returned to my room and late that night wrote what I believed to be my most inspired piece of writing to date. I called it “Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, Nietzsche and the Machiavellian ideal”. The grade came back from my tutor the next week: Fail. I should have known.

So here I am almost forty years later, and Dannhauser has passed away, and I am left wondering why he was so sick – so apparently on his deathbed even then (and how he miraculously recovered; I can find no reference to that online).

And here are the things that I did not know about Dannhauser then:

– He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in the USA in 1938 at age nine. He studied for his PhD at the University of Chicago under Leo Strauss, worked for “Commentary” magazine and later came to Cornell. His wife died at a young age, and he raised his two children on his own.

– His essay “On Teaching Politics”, originally published in 1975, is still seen as a classic of the genre.

– Dannhauser was extremely close friends with Allan Bloom, and almost certainly the character of “Morris Herbst” in the novel “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow was based on Dannhauser. (Want to read the first chapter of “Ravelstein”? You can find it here.)  Bellow even sent Dannhauser a draft of the novel to review, and Dannhauser suggested playing down Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which Bellow did not do.  In May 2000, C-Span broadcast a session at the Hudson Institute, in which Dannhauser participated, discussing Bellow and Bloom.

All these things I did not know, until very recently.  Perhaps, had I known some of them then, I would have paid more attention.  But I did not.

I recovered from the Fail mark and pulled a C-, but for many decades I declared that I was not interested in “political theory” – all because of my bad experience in Dannhauser’s course, and the acolytes who followed him around. What a shame, and what a waste. Perhaps the lesson is that eminent professors do not always turn into inspiring teachers. Perhaps it was just my callow youthfulness, but in my case, my experience was just the opposite.

(More Dannhauser obituaries are available from “Commentary” and “The Weekly Standard”.)

Companion to the Australian Media coming soon

June 4, 2014

I am proud to be a contributing author to the upcoming “A Companion to the Australian Media”, to be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing and released in September 2014.  It’s edited by Professor Bridget Griffin-Foley (Macquarie University), and has an eminent editorial board.

It also has a whopping 479 entries totalling more than 415,000 words written by 300 contributors, including Quentin Dempster, David Salter, Eric Beecher, Tim Bowden, Mark Day, Gerald Stone, John Faulkner, Graham Freudenberg, Ross Gittins, Gideon Haigh, Sandra Hall, Jacqueline Kent, Valerie Lawson, Sylvia Lawson, Peter Manning, Bill Peach, Nicolas Rothwell, Julianne Schultz, Margaret Simons, Graeme Turner and Richard Walsh.  I wrote the entries on “film reviewing in Australia” and “educational media in Australia”.

An article by Peter Coleman about the “Companion” appeared in the May 31, 2014 edition of The Spectator.

Here are extracts from the official first “blurb”:

At this time of rapid and revolutionary change in modes of communication, A Companion to the Australian Media provides the first comprehensive, up-to-date historical account of Australia’s press, broadcasting and new media sectors.

Arranged in an accessible A–Z format are nearly 500 articles focussing on both the history and contemporary practice of media corporations, individuals, industries, audiences, policy and regulation since the launch of Australia’s first newspaper in 1803.

Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival June 2014

June 1, 2014

(This article about Jewish themes in the 2014 Sydney Film Festival appeared in different version in the Sydney edition of the “Australian Jewish News” on 29 May 2014, under the title “Documentaries with a Jewish focus”.)

There are few better opportunities to take a snapshot of independent international film-making than a large festival such as the Sydney Film Festival. The most likely Jewish audience pleaser this year will be “Wish I Was Here”, written and directed by as well as co-starring American-Jewish actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs”). This mellow and bittersweet comedy-drama has a similar tone to his first feature, the cult favourite “Garden State”, even including similar music. In “Wish I Was Here”, Braff plays a struggling Jewish actor, Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”) his on-screen father, and Kate Hudson his wife. The film has a notable funding history: Braff obtained more than 46,520 financial backers through the “Kickstarter” crowd-funding website.

As Israeli film and television goes from artistic strength to strength, feature films by Palestinians are slowly but surely making their international mark. Not surprisingly, the primary topic is battling Israel, frequently through acts of terrorism. This year the Festival features “Omar” (in Arabic and Hebrew) by Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), and shot in Nablus and Nazareth. This hard-hitting (and for Jews, often hard to watch) thriller was nominated for an Academy Award last year, and tells the story of Palestinian baker Omar who keeps scaling the separation wall to see his girlfriend on the other side. When Omar is captured by Israeli soldiers, tensions are brought to a head. The film’s sympathies are obvious, but the dramatic strength of “Omar” and its all-too-human stories are hard to ignore.

“Omar” has a very tight script, excellent acting and direction:  there are some chase scenes through Arab towns that equal the sort of scenes we have seen in the “Bourne” films or Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise vehicles.  The strength of “Omar” is that it focuses on the claustrophobic lives of young Arabs caught on the Israeli-Palestine border.  Although the perspective is Palestinian, the film – mostly – avoids prominent anti-Israel stereotypes.  When three Israeli soldiers humiliate Omar when they stop him on the street (making him stand on a rock), we do not have a hard time imagining that this very event can and does take place.  Ultimately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides the background to a strong drama, but this is much less a political film that a study of character and of people caught in forces much larger than they can control.

Film festivals are the natural screening homes of long-form documentaries, and an analysis of the world’s great documentaries and documentary film-makers will surely show that Jews are over-represented in both. This year the Festival features three creative feature-length documentaries on three very different Jewish men: radical academic Noam Chomsky, the late European lawyer and advocate Raphael Lemkin and Hollywood “super-agent” Shep Gordon. Chomsky is well-known for his anti-Zionist views, and in “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”, Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) presents an original documentary interview with the linguist and commentator, primarily using coloured hand-drawn animation to illustrate the discussion.

In “Watchers of the Sky”, Jewish director Edet Belzberg examines the modern history of genocide. She frames her wide-ranging film through the life of Raphael Lemkin, who was born in 1900 in Belarus, and who invented the term “genocide” in 1944, which he defined as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” The film’s other hero (if you can call him that) is Benjamin Ferencz, the Hungarian-born Jewish lawyer who became a Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials; at age 94, Ferencz is still active in his global peace work. In covering so many different events (Armenian genocide, Rwanda, Darfur, Yugoslavia), Belzberg risks losing focus: the film reportedly took ten years to make and had a massive 800 hours of footage to edit. “Watchers of the Sky” is undeniably dense and not an easy viewing experience, but a powerful addition to the visual history of genocide and the place of the Holocaust.

By contrast, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”, directed by actor Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), is a more straightforward and totally upbeat documentary about Hollywood Jewish super-agent Shep Gordon (“The nicest person I’ve ever met”, says Myers). You may have never heard of Gordon, but heart-felt testimonials from Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Willie Nelson and others may convince you that not everyone in Hollywood is a shark. Celebrities galore and entertaining.

In addition to these films, four other Jewish documentary-makers have important films in the festival. Octogenarian Frederick Wiseman is best-known for his observational ability to capture the “essence” of American institutions such as hospitals, high schools, the army, state government, parks, prisons and department stores. This year, his two most recent films are being screened: “National Gallery” (three hours, fresh from the Cannes Film Festival) about the iconic London gallery, and “At Berkeley” (two parts, each two hours) about the University of California campus.

A more polemic film is “E-Team”, about human rights workers in Syria and Libya, by Oscar-winner Ross Kauffman (who is a Festival guest). Physicist-turned-film-maker Mark Levinson’s “Particle Fever” follows the scientists launching the Large Hadron Collider. And Australia’s own Rod Freedman (“Uncle Chatzkel”) returns with “Once My Mother”, Polish-Australian film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz’s examination of her fraught relationship with her mother, who is slipping into dementia.

To round out the importance of documentaries, the Festival is hosting a panel discussion entitled “Can Docos Change the World?” Speakers include Ross Kauffman and Professor Andrea Durbach, the South African-born Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW; the film “A Common Purpose” about Durbach’s work won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival back in 2011, and she is a passionate speaker.

Other Festival films of Jewish note include a gay love story, a New York musical tale, an environmental thriller and a teacher rivalry.  In “Love is Strange”, gay Jewish film-maker Ira Sachs’ tells a touching story of two ageing men (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who are desperate to keep living together but torn apart when one of them loses his job teaching music in a Catholic high school.  “Love is Strange” is a small film, set mostly in crowded New York City flats, but it feels so emotionally true that the viewer never strays.  Unlike more films and television programs than I can count, this film shows what it is really like to live in New York City:  too many people for too little space.  The difficulty that the Lithgow and Molina characters have is in finding an affordable place to live together with no income, so each must “board” with friends or relatives, sharing a bedroom (with a nephew) or sleeping on a living room couch surrounded by party people.  This is the real New York, not the fake New York of people with large airy apartments all apparently paid for by part-time low-level jobs.  Genuinely touching and worth seeing.

In “Begin Again” – described as a “musical valentine to New York City” – Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Levine co-stars as a straying musician boyfriend of the ignored Keira Knightly (Adam, are you serious?). In “Night Moves”, Jesse Eisenberg turns his hand to the thriller genre, starring as an environmental terrorist. “Frank” is a bizarre story about musicians (one of whom always wears a giant fake head), directed by Irish-Jewish film-maker Lenny Abrahamson. In “Words and Pictures”, Clive Owen stars as Jack Marcus, a damaged but inspirational Jewish high school English teacher, whose rivalry with an art teacher (Juliette Binoche) runs a predictable but nevertheless enjoyable course. It’s directed by Australian icon Fred Schepsi, who is also a Festival guest and who will give the Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture.

Fun facts:
Frederick Wiseman’s production company is named “Zipporah Films”. In the Bible, Zipporah was the wife of Moses; it is also Wiseman’s wife’s first name.
Zach Braff’s mother converted to Judaism and Zach is a distant (ninth) cousin to American politician Mitt Romney through her.