Modest Expectations – Ib puas peb caug yim

The most mispronounced word in the English language – geneAlogy. No, no, no, not geneology.

Greek γενεᾱλογία to Latin geneālogia to Old French genealogie to eventual English geneAlogy. Just repeating what I have read from a reliable geneAlogical etymological source.

The Land of the Hmong

When I was what in those days was the American acronym BMC, in the audience which often clustered around was a cheerful young Asian guy, who introduced himself as Mechai. Thus was my introduction to Mechai Viravaidya. Little did I know that he would parlay his name into fame through a nationwide contraceptive program with his name “Mechai” becoming the Thai word for “condom”.

Mechai, with a Mechai T-shirt

I never knew Mechai very well, although he was at the University of Melbourne and a resident of Trinity College. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School, as were a number of the Thai upper class and were laughingly known as the “Thai mafia”. In any event, he was younger than I, did commerce, and although our paths had crossed having mutual acquaintances, there was a particular time later when we were involved in developing a project which unfortunately never eventuated.

Working with him did give me some insight into how this remarkable man worked. I remember from the time undertaking political science where mention was made of how integrated and influential the Thai bureaucracy was with the royal family. I never completely worked out Mechai’s connection to the family, apart from the fact that his wife was on the staff of the late King Bhumibol. I feared any further prying would have crossed the etiquette line, but I was told he was close to the dowager queen, who died during one of my visits. The Thais are very cognisant of protocol and correctness. The link is only important in emphasising how connected royalty is to privilege.

Mechai parlayed this privilege in establishing a public health revolution to slow population growth in Thailand through contraception; his innovation was to link condoms to cabbages because it had been determined that the vegetable sellers would provide the most efficient means of distributing the free condoms, particularly in those rural areas of the country where there were no doctors.

Enough has been written about Mechai and how his contribution has been well recognised throughout the world. I fortunately have stayed in his apartment above his signature restaurant in Bangkok – Cabbages & Condoms. At one stage when my career had converged around public health and quality assurance in health care, it was proposed that a conference for each would be held in Thailand.

At that stage, the contraception program was reaching its maturity, and Mechai was looking around for a new challenge. At the time we renewed the contact, he was thinking about involving himself in a national AIDS program, a severe public health problem at that time in Thailand. An international conference focussing on the two intertwined issues of quality and public health improvement seemed a good option and, as part of finding a venue outside the capital, we went up to Chiang Rai, a city in the North of Thailand.

Mechai had an interest in what was essentially a hill settlement, where international schools had been or were proposed to be established. The Dowager Queen had been very interested, and from what Mechai said at that time, he was very interested in the Timbertop arrangement which Geelong Grammar School had established.  It could be said that a period at school in the Victorian mountains was a means of toughening the inherent noblesse oblige in its pupils. At that time in the mid-90s, I believe that there may been some interest in Geelong Grammar School being involved in a Thai extension of the concept.

What struck me was the variety of people living in Chiang Rai, and each of these hill tribes, as they were called generically to me, was identified by their clothing. Like so many whistle-stop tours, impressions are left, which fade with time. I cannot remember whether we ate any distinctively cooked “hill” food, except for some recollection of purple rice.

Hmong traditional textiles

I acquired some Hmong textiles, which are my reminder of that visit. The Hmong, originally from southern China, had spread through the Indochinese countries, and in the wake of the Vietnam war where many of them assisted the American forces, they had become a race of refugees. Sounds familiar for minorities who attempt to better their lot with the invader. Indeed, the Hmong community in America, especially in California and Minnesota, is big enough to be noticed, whereas in Australia it is barely 1,500.

In the end, the conference was held elsewhere; a consultancy with Dr Don Grimes, which was to have been carried out alongside such a conference, fizzled out with a change of Government.

Nevertheless, I have one memorable moment which I shall always remember. We travelled as far as the ferry would take us up the Chao Phraya River from the Oriental Hotel. We noted, not far from the wharf where we disembarked, a formidable structure which turned out to be the Bang Kwang Central Prison – the so-called Bangkok Hilton. We decided to have lunch near there in a café overlooking the river, but the menu was in Thai. So we looked over the shoulder of the next couple, pointed at what they were eating. A magic gustatory experience. It was fish, but the underlying whirlwind emanating from the food was garlic and chilli. That is an everlasting image of Thailand – an exotic location where your mouth is set on fire with a Scoville reading off the scale.

It was, in the end, a pity about the proposed venture with Mechai which came to nothing. But as they say, you win some – as Mechai had done before in spades with his contraception campaign and other public health ventures – and, in lower case, in whispered tones, you lose some.

The Virginian

Now that the dust has settled in Virginia, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the lessons we are taking from the McAuliffe loss and our roadmap moving forward.

In short, it exposed a major weakness in the Democratic establishment’s strategy – a weakness we at the Lincoln Project will be able to help solve.

Youngkin and family

What the establishment failed to do – and what time and time again has come back and bitten them – was define their opponent early. For months, Democrats let Glenn Youngkin skate by in his fleece vest and by the time everyone woke up and hit alarm bells, it was too late. Meanwhile, Republicans threw the kitchen sink at Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats and it worked.

There is a reason we tried to do everything we could to paint him as Glenn Trumpkin. There were hundreds of thousands of anti-Trump voters that needed to hear that message. Ultimately, we were swimming against the tide too late – and swimming alone.

Yes, there were other issues at stake in Virginia. Yes, the historical momentum was against Democrats from the beginning. If you look at exit polls (and take them with a grain of salt) Biden’s approval rating in a State he won by 10 was tanking. Education was the issue the most voters said mattered to them when making up their minds.

But how did we get that far – that Democrats were losing white women, suburban voters, and people caring about education? They got dragged into a battlefield the Republicans defined, which meant they had an uphill fight from the beginning.

Our opponents are more sophisticated and more well-funded than Democrats realize. Democrats can’t just turn on the small dollar money cannon and hope it helps them make up ground. They must get more proactive because the other side already is.

What we are up against is a well-coordinated message machine with built in channels to spread their disinformation and propaganda. If you turned on a TV or went online in Virginia anytime after Labor Day it was all education, education, education. Critical Race Theory freakouts. Virginia’s school board dramas made national news. Even the non-propaganda media fell into this trap. And it was all done by the Fox News-centred right-wing message machine, for which Democrats currently have no answer.

What they did was define a single issue to allow voters to look under the umbrella. Then they used the voters who came in to develop sophisticated models that they then used to target well beyond their usual base. See, most campaigns stay in their lane and talk to their people with the same tested taglines and codified language that have worked for years. They know that investing in ads to persuade people to switch sides in this polarized environment is akin to setting money on fire.  Remember, they’re not most people. This risk they took – hanging the campaign on an ambiguous non-issue that would go on to be developed in the imaginations of voters – and reaching out well beyond their base, and even running suppression campaigns against the Democratic base – that’s how you play hardball. And that’s how you win. 

What does this mean for us moving forward?

We know that our strategy works and that there is a lane that only we occupy. Until Democrats are willing to take the gloves off and define their opponents with a coordinated message that voters actually remember, we’re going to have to do it.

Because someone has to. It is why right now we are actively working against Abbott (Texas) and DeSantis (Florida) and will be launching similar campaigns to make sure the authoritarians can’t just put their sheep’s clothing on again and blend in with the pack. Voters will believe it if we are not careful.

The Lincoln Project is a group of former Republicans with a particular obsession about Trump. The Trumpians are continually running smear campaigns against the major Lincolnians. If you have a cohort of journalists working for the media who need an exclusive story, especially when it is spiced up, then they are readily available recipients.  Reasoned beliefs are incidental and superfluous, unless they can be translated into money. Thus the media are composed of ideologues, many with a tincture of the authoritarian fascist; the plain concrete-foot-in-the -door mercenaries and a sprinkle of those who are genuinely interested in policy matters, increasingly confined in the far off galaxy of Blogs.

Would-be mercenaries should remember that from the time of the Thirty Years’ War the Elector of Hesse, archetype of the mercenary industry, made large amounts of money from hiring out his subjects as infantry for the highest bidder, clothing them in a form of sackcloth to save money – the material now known as hessian. For the successful mercenary, the payment was potage and loot. The Elector also, unlike the modern media moguls, had no problem with retrenchment.

Having said that, losing the Virginia governorship when the party of the President has just assumed office has occurred on eight consecutive occasions. The doomsayers were harking back to 2009, the year that Obama assumed the Presidency, to highlight that loss in Virginia. Yet those same people failed to say that the Democrats also lost the governorship of New Jersey in 2009, which has not happened on this occasion, even though the winning margin was only about one percentage point.

The fallout seems to have galvanised the Democratic-controlled Congress to break their internal impasse and pass legislation designed to establish Biden’s version of the New Deal. The Republican knee jerk is to dart from policies which are based on a mixture of passive aggression and threatened violence to actively cower and starve the electorate of government support.

Yet both in the Senate and now the House, sufficient Republicans have had the gumption to vote in favour and thus enable passage of the Infrastructure Bill.  Thus, what was significant in the end in the House last Friday wasn’t the progressive Democrats but the 13 Republican key votes. The final vote count was 228 to 206, meaning if no Republicans had voted for the bill, it wouldn’t have passed.

Sistine Chapel

There are some Republicans who still believe in bipartisan behaviour. If you stop countries being democratically governable, then you revert to a feudalism where the Bezos, the Branson and the Zuckerberg can indulge in the modern day equivalent of rape and pillage of the environment. Maybe starving the peasants was a necessary prerequisite in the private underwriting of the cost of the Sistine Chapel, but not the passage of much-needed infrastructure measures. In this modern world it is the proportionate intervention of government into infrastructure renewal to enable the Sistine Chapel metaphor not to collapse.

As the Washington Post has concluded, the “Biden failure” narrative now appears alarmist and indeed downright wrong. Yet such conclusions are often premature, as the above analysis seems to suggest.

Hence, I suspect the importance of the continuing pressure from the Lincoln Project and its allies in blunting any return of Trump.  But as my Italian friend would say, chissá.

The Search for the Tassili Frescoes

Tassili fresco

I have recently been reading this book describing an expedition funded by French sources in 1956. Its leader, Henri Lhote, wrote the book – the title of this blog – of this arduous exploration of the Central Saharan plateau of Tassili-n-Ajjer. The expedition was in search of the frescoes, predominantly painted in that fragment of time from prehistoric to well into the period where the tribes of the Sahara co-existed alongside the Egyptian pharaohs. In fact some of the frescoes have images of Pharaonic boats and female figures that look decidedly Egyptian.

The wall paintings are reminiscent of the cave art discovered in Europe, and of the same period. I suppose that my interest was kindled by that extraordinary elegy on the Neanderthals titled “Kindred”.

These paintings are extensive, and the French expedition spent months mapping and tracing the rock art onto paper. The way these frescoes had been created was to minimise the damage from the elements, especially as the Sahara, in the era when these frescoes were painted, was lush and verdant. The varied wildlife depicted in the frescoes co-existed with the people there, the forerunners of the Tuareg, who now are the only residents left in this desert with its waterholes and some of the oldest trees in the world – the Sahara cypress. The wood is so hard that the prehistoric inhabitants did not have the tools to cut them down – the technology to completely deforest was not available to our prehistoric ancestors.

Tassili fresco

What caught my attention was the period when much of the wall art was of cattle – the so-called Bovidian period. Let me quote Henri Lhote explaining his interpretation of the desiccation of the Sahara:

Herdsman have ever been the great destroyers of vegetation and if we admit (as the evidence of the Tassili paintings suggests) that thousands of oxen wandered about in the Sahara for thousands of years, we may well assume their destructive action to have been so great that it contributed largely to the desiccation of the whole region. It would, of course, be absurd to regard cattle as solely responsible, climatic changes being the prime cause, but they played no small part.”

When I read this, I thought of the Joycean solution of reducing methane levels and hence improving the climate change agenda by shooting all the cattle. It was a little drastic, but these days there are no cattle roaming the Central Sahara, a few goats maybe – but not cattle. Yet cattle live on in these magnificent frescoes.

The discussion about reducing methane levels is about reducing the emissions of methane, predominantly from cattle. Methane is one of the main culprits and animal emissions are in the range of five per cent of all emissions. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide – the consequence of cattle herding provides an interesting parallel between civilisations thousands of years apart. The Sahara then was the harbinger of what is happening now across Africa in terms of desertification; but more in its pernicious effect on the climate.

Toss another beetroot on the barbie …

Maybe, as a tribute to a Joycean Cenacolo, when our descendants – if any – are shuffling through the remains of our civilisation they will stumble upon the outcome of the Joycean fiat – images of mammoth Australian barbecues, Southern State cook-outs. Argentinian parilladas, Brazilian churrascos, South African braai.  Frescoes of coal or methane fired braziers on walls, and now food which could be cooked under the rays of the sun. But who came to eat?

Methane, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is released from a number of sources and its capture presents a particular problem because here one cannot point at coal as the major reason. In the agricultural sector there is research activity in Australia, less extreme than the Joycean solution directed towards methane reduction – and for that matter other pollutant gases inter alia hydrogen sulphide and the nitrogen gaseous by-products.

Here there is experimentation in mixing the grasses, so the roots of this “feedlot” are diverse in their length, and hence their ability to retain carbon.  There is literature about composting waste by minimising the amount of bacterial and fungal anaerobic activity, but like carbon capture, who of us can generalise the ultimate worldwide solution from a few pilot programs of variable effectiveness? I have disregarded the Joycean solution on the rounds that his aim is always faulty and the National Party would never be vegans.

A neo-Bovidian age beckons, I’m afraid.

Two Smiths

We live on a busy inner Sydney street, which is poorly cambered. The local Council also believes in the authenticity of potholes to preserve the roads in the pre-WWI condition when there also was a coal mine just behind our house, about a hundred years ago.

If you drive along our street at night, the front gate is clearly visible directly in the headlights. You will drive straight through the wall unless you turn as the street turns sharply right up the hill, or else career at the last moment along the wall of the house down the lane.

Only on one occasion over 30 years of living in such a potential target has a car come through the wall. The wall is over two metres high and brick. Thus, when the car came through the wall, it made a terrible mess, including the car.

The car managed to reverse and left a Volkswagen badge as a signature. The police were informed, but it was the mother with her son in tow who turned up several days later to apologise and offer to pay. No charges were laid. We all moved on in true Morrison tradition. The replaced wall is better; there is a tree in front of the wall now, and there is a front garden behind the wall, as well as a buffer of illegally parked vehicles often lining the kerb.

I was reminded of this when the politician Smith ploughed into a fence in Hawthorn at a corner of a street with which I am very familiar.

The remnants

On this occasion Entitlement Smith not only took out a wall, but also another car, but not the house wall fortunately, which separated his car from striking a child asleep in the room behind this second wall. An imperilled child.  A man with a bucolic face and dead eyes staggers away into the arms of a breathalyser and strikes the jackpot. I have a problem with dead eyes because they often provide an accurate window into the person’s soul or lack of same.

Across the continent, a child is found. Cleo Smith had been missing for 18 days. Alive, and able to answer: “My name is Cleo” – in a very firm four-year old voice.

As with most people when I heard that Cleo had been found, I had this overwhelming sense of relief and elation. For the parents the nightmare was over. For the child, I hoped that the nightmare had not been embedded into her psyche by the random counsellors and psychologists who feel obliged to make public commentary on how such a child should feel in these circumstances. So many children go missing, and a tragic number of these either are never found or are found dead. It is a terrible denominator.

In this case, the child had been the subject of a wide-ranging search; and the desperation was showing in the news that the police force was delving into every rubbish bin they could find. The two media reports seemed so disconnected, because there was no hint of her whereabouts.

Then in the night police were shown breaking down the door of a house in the Aboriginal section of Carnarvon. I have been to Carnarvon a few times.

It is unique in being a substantial settlement in the desert on the sea, and where the Gascoyne River runs underground. Carnarvon has a major indigenous population. With its banana plantations, it has a degree of colour; and to me it is not a bad town.

After my initial reaction, when images emerged in the media, I wondered at how well cared for she looked. Then it came out that she had been found alone playing with toys, and later it was revealed that in this house there was a room stuffed with dolls.

The alleged perpetrator was an Aboriginal man found some distance away. Since that time little about the man has emerged, but from that which has emerged he seems to be a sad lonely person. No, that is no excuse for “child-stealing”. However, the case seemed strange enough for the police to use this wording as the most appropriate course of action.

But then there was an underlying problem, with a one million dollar reward on offer. The pictures of the search were beginning to fade as the media became bored, and the reward was meant to be a stimulus.

Then the discovery, and all changed.  The spectacle became one of everybody claiming credit with even the WA Premier flying to Carnarvon for a photo-opportunity with stuffed toy props.

From being a wonderful tableau, it degenerated into a public relations exercise even to the extent of this man, shackled and in bare feet, being escorted to a plane by four riot police officers, to be placed in maximum security. Presumably to protect from those who allegedly bashed him in custody.

Yes, I’m a long way away, but a child has been returned to her parents, and the spotlights should be turned off. Enough is enough.

What if there had been the spectacle of a barefooted dishevelled Mr Entitlement Smith being marched off to a maximum security prison, bail refused? We can only speculate on how his colleagues would have reacted if the car had gone through the child’s bedroom wall, with him revving his car in a drunken state trying to reverse out of his mess into another mess without ever knowing the difference – without ever knowing there was a child in the room.

In the case of Cleo Smith, I hope the three parents are not subject to the normal reaction from the media trying to spin the story out into a “60 second special” – “by getting the story behind the story” as the lugubrious voiceover will say, or some such.

The pet jaguar

I also hope when all the vengeance and anger die down, Mr Kelly is cut the same sort of slack which has been afforded the current member for Kew, who is still loose in the community, even without a pet Jaguar.

Mouse Whisper

On looking into Niki Savva’s brain – as trephined by Golden Beauty called Orietta. I was attracted by her question and answer session; a common method we use in our Cheddar press when we interview a celebrity like Michael to get the latest on his relationship with Mistress Min.

But when journalists start interviewing other journalists you know the end of the world is nigh –a comment from a SMH sauce that spoke to me only on the condition of “an old enemy”.

Watch out for the barrelling pork!

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