Holy Moses or “There’s never an irony policeman when you need one”

We watched the documentary. Excellent if problematic, it was basically a morality play: a bunch of old white powerful men in a self-designed and policed echo chamber are eventually brought low by a scrappy band of diverse (gasp) women. And so immediately after the film there was to be a discussion. And a bunch of old white powerful men sat around and started to talk among themselves about their memories, while (BME) women watched on from the back of the room.

Reader, I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

There really never is an irony policeman around when you need one.

The documentary was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a skilfully made but partial hagiography of Jane “The Death and Life of American Cities” Jacobs, and the battles she fought – and won – with the infamous Robert ‘The Power Broker’ Moses. Moses was drunk on the sort of power that being part of the winning side in an World War gives you (planes, tanks and atomic weapons). Moses then planned to redesign New York City to his own particular purposes. Not captured in the film (one of its silences) was just how fantastically racist (even “by the standards of his day”) Moses was. This would have complicated the straightforward (largely white) narrative that got told. So be it. Anyway, Jacobs, a journalist and all-round good egg, fought Moses over his plans to drive a road through Washington Park in 1954. Then, a few years later, Moses had a hard-on for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs and co beat him again.

The documentary then took a good turn – looking at the Chinese government’s falling-in-love with Moses’ technocratic dreams. It didn’t have time to explore the new resistance (e.g. the Shanghai maglev doesn’t make it from the airport to the city centre). There are other problems of course.

For a film that celebrates “diversity” it didn’t have that many non-white faces (though to be fair, it did have some). It didn’t historicise- would it have killed them to say who Moses’ hero was – Haussmann of Paris (instead we got heaps of Le Corbusier. Interesting, but, meh). It could have further contextualised Moses’ will to power (he was both a regime and a Nietzsche actor) by better referencing the chaos of the Depression and the “successes” of US planning and power during the war, and put it alongside the white heat of 1950s ‘successes’ (DDT, the space programme, blah blah), and also pointed to the collapse of that faith not just with Jacobs, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. But to be fair, this was a documentary that needed to have a Bad Guy and a Good Guy (well, gal). It wasn’t, after all, an Adam Curtis documentary. My rule of thumb of a documentary – do I feel I know enough, but do I still want to know more? The answer in this case is an emphatic yes.

Meanwhile, Jacobs instantly puts me in mind of Rachel ‘Silent Spring’ Carson (mentioned by one interviewee) and more latterly Elinor Ostrom. Moses harks back to Haussmann but also to a near contemporary, Robert McNamara, an equally ‘modernist’ figure who prosecuted the Vietnam War (3 million dead at the time, more since from land mines and defoliants etc) with the same gusto and the same playbook as Moses did the enemy ghettos of New York.

Back to the ‘discussion’. Would it really have killed any of the initial speakers to look around the room and say ‘hey, if we’re gonna have a discussion about diversity, it would help if we were all in a big circle. You don’t have to say anything if you join the circle, and you don’t have to move to be in the circle if you don’t want, but we can hardly honour Jacobs and the documentary-maker’s capital M Message about inclucivity if we don’t at least try to reshape the space for conviviality in the Illich sense, rather than a Powerful White Men get to Express-their-opinions-Way.’

Didn’t happen, at least while I was there: I then invoked the law of two feet. Also, I have a thesis to finish.


Nice power/authority distinction

I have been – by wiser heads than mine – warned off trying to bite off much more for The Thesis, and we all agree with the imperative to Get The Damned Thing Finished.  So, am not going to open up the box marked “power” more than a little peek…  That’s for a mythical post-doc…

Meanwhile, Gerard Henderson (I’m not really a fan, but “stopped clocks” and all that) had this to say this morning about the Barnaby Joyce fiasco (the latest one, I mean) on ABC’s Insiders this morning (18 February 2018)

“As we know in politics, politicians often think they have power.  They don’t really have power, they have legitimate authority. They may make powerful decisions, but what they have is authority. Once you lose your authority, once you’re de-authorised, like Barnaby Joyce is, it’s very difficult to hang on….”

Reminds me of Somerset Maugham‘s observation in Then and Now (his imagining of Machiavelli past his prime) about the thing politicians not being able to survive being ridicule/mockery….

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.