Saturday, January 17, 2009

Seadevil Mating

This is one of the most interesting things I have read recently. It is not very Australian, but I did read it in Best Australian Essays 2008.

“…consider the black seadevil. It’s a somber, grapefruit-sized globe of a fish – seemingly all fangs and gape – with a ‘fishing rod’ affixed between its eyes whose luminescent bait jerks above the trap-like mouth. Clearly, food is a priority for this creature, for it can swallow a victim nearly as large as itself. But this is only half the story, for this description pertains solely to the female: the male is a minnow-like being content to feed on specks in the sea – until, that is, he encounters his sexual partner.

The first time that a male black seadevil meets his larger mate, he bites her and never lets go. Over time, his veins and arteries grow together with hers, until he becomes a foetus-like dependent who receives from his mate’s blood all the food, oxygen and hormones he requires to exist. The cost of this utter dependence is a loss of function in all of his organs except his testicles, but even these, it seems, are stimulated to action solely at the pleasure of the engulfing female. When she has had her way with him, the male seadevil simply vanishes, having been completely absorbed and dissipated into the flesh of his paramour, leaving her free to seek another mate. Not even Dante imagined such a fate.”

“Where Wonder Awaits Us,” by Tim Flannery

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Ashamed to Be Australian"

We have heard several Australians say that there is one ongoing government policy that makes them ashamed: the treatment of asylum seekers.

Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers used to find a very open door in Australia. When the Vietnamese "boat people" came in the 1980s, they were held for a few weeks for medical checks and paperwork before entering Australian society.

In 2001 the Norwegian ship Tampa picked up Afghan refugees rescued from a sinking vessel. The Australian government refused to let them land in Australia. The Howard government then won an election based, in part, on fear of large numbers of refugees flooding Australia. The processing centers for refugees and asylum seekers turned into concentration camps patrolled by armed guards. The weeks of health checks and paperwork turned into years of isolation.

It is likely that the new Rudd government will undo some of the policies of their predecessors. It has already started to do so on the touchiest issue, the treatment of aborigines. Indeed, since Prime Minister Rudd issued the "Apology" to the aboriginal peoples, there is a sense among most Australians we have met that problem is heading toward a solution. The wounds caused by the stolen generation, massacres, and general ill-treatment are starting to heal.

Not so with the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. To be sure, there must be many Australians, especially Liberal/National voters, who support to tight controls on refugees. But for the people we talked to, including some Liberals, the asylum-seeker policy is the one great source of national shame.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Australian vs. American Democracy

We had a fascinating conversation with John Hirst, an eminent historian, and Sally Warhaft, editor of The Monthly, about Australia's system of compulsory voting. Australian elections are held on Saturday and are easy to get to. All eligible voters are required to vote. If they don't, they must either get their excuse approved or pay a fine. This system is very unusual in the world. Belgium is the only other high-income country to have it, and the other countries don't enforce the rule. I have been surprised that we have encountered so little discussion of it, one way or the other. It is just accepted here as the way it is.

We agreed that the United States is not likely to ever adopt such a system. For us, democracy means that each individual has a choice, including the choice not to participate. We were also assured that Australia is not likely to drop their system. For them, democracy means that each individual has a voice, so must have (and use) a place at the table.

Joe's Awesome Day

The students had the day off, so I organized an Awesome Day for my son, who is 14. He has been doing the same work as the college students, and been dragged to many an event by dad that would not have been his first choice. He has remained game throughout. So today was his day.

We started last night. A downtown Melbourne movie theater offers all the usual movies - plus "Bollywood." Which actual Bollywood feature they are offering seems to be secondary to the sheer fact that the genre is represented. We went to "Ghajini," a revenge story that turned on short-term memory loss, like "Memento." In the middle of this dark story, though, was a romance between two very handsome leads, with singing, dancing, fantasy sequences, bright colors, but not so much as a kiss. The whole thing last more than three hours, including an intermission. It let out at midnight. There were a dozen Indians, mostly couples, and us. We had a blast.

Today we went to see the State Library of Victoria, a wonderful old rotunda library, like the British Museum reading room. It has a fine exhibit of Melbourne and Victoria history, the highlight of which is the weird home-made armor that the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly wore when he had his final shoot-out with the police in the 1880s.

For lunch we had kangaroo, wallaby, crocodile, and a somewhat less exotic squid. Joe liked the crocodile best.

The highlight of the day was Eureka Tower. This is a residential skyscraper, the tallest residence in the Southern hemisphere (which means it beats another one in Queensland, though that one cheats with a higher antenna). On the top floor there is a great observation deck, including a very breezing outdoor section. Today was clear and hot, so we enjoyed the view and the breeze. The best part, though, is The Edge. This is a cube, about twelve feet on a side, glass on each face including the floor. When you enter, the glass is milky. The whole cube is then extended out past the side of the building. Suddenly, accompanied by scary noises, the cloudiness clears, and you are looking 88 stories straight down. And up, and all around. It is pretty impressive. Joe and I were photographed standing on glass, with the earth visible far below us. He will use the picture to scare his sisters.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"She'll Be All Right"

Today we met with representatives of American businesses. I will not identify them, in case doing so would bring them some grief. They reported an interesting difference between American and Australian business cultures.

Americans take for granted that customer service is necessary to do your job correctly, and for you business to succeed. Likewise, Americans expect managers and professionals to push to improve the business -- coming up with good ideas is a valued way to contribute to the whole and to get ahead personally.

Australian managers and professionals, on the other hand, are told that "tall poppies get cut down." Pushing innovations and improvements is not regarded as contributing to the company, but as arrogant self-promotion. Likewise, Australian workers (and students, we also heard) think that if you have a job or a place, you are entitled to full pay or promotion for it, no matter how well (or poorly) you do the job.

Australian workers, in other words, satisfice. They do not push for the optimal solution, they take the first adequate one. Rather than seeking excellence, at the cost of conflict, an Australian is more likely to accept the status quo on the grounds that "she'll be all right."

Monday, January 12, 2009

National Identity Matters Most When You Are Abroad

One of my main reasons for choosing "Australian National Identity" as the subject of our course here comes from Centre College's extensive experience with study abroad: when they study out of the country, our students discover that they are Americans. (Except the international students, of course, who already had a parallel experience by coming to Centre). Americans probably do proclaim their Americanness to one another more than the citizens of most nations do. Still, there are dozens of distinctive expectations that we have at home without knowing it. These American expectations and assumptions come out by contrast in another society.

Today we had a stellar day with a group of sociologists at LaTrobe University here in Melbourne. Kerreen Reiger had organized a day with her colleagues, most notably Peter Beilharz, Karl Smith, and Sue Turnbull. They helped us reflect on Australianness. They also confirmed that their students think even less about their national identity at home than Americans do -- but discover that they are Australians when they are abroad. Several of the professors, likewise, reported that they only had reason to describe themselves as Australian when abroad.

I don't think this fact means that national identity does not matter at home. I think it just means that national identity is most salient when compared to other national identities.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Advance, Australia Furry

The Australian national anthem is "Advance, Australia Fair."

The two animals on the Australian seal are the red kangaroo and the emu.

They were chosen, in part, because they cannot go backwards. They can only advance.