Happy Independence Day

Last Friday to celebrate US independence day I took to the streets of Brisbane dressed as Uncle Sam. I was holding a sign that said “Happy Independence Day! Let’s Make Australia Independent One Day!” and handing out flyers which quoted the declaration of independence and applied it to Australia and our need to free ourselves from the American Empire.

It was all very last minute. I’d spent the week reading Iain McIntyre’s history of Australian agitation “How To Make Trouble And Influence People” and listening to Jeffrey Lewis sing Crass songs, so I was itching to get out and do something. I’ll admit that it probably wasn’t the best action I’ve ever done (I know some people didn’t pick up on the irony), and due to a combination of factors I ended up going on my own, but there were some interesting things that happened and made me think, so I thought I’d write this.

King George Square was a bit quiet to start with, so I decided to wander through the Queen Street mall for a bit until they kicked me out. That process took probably about 5 minutes or so, except this time the council ranger not only wanted to stop for a chat but also to fine me $113 for the offence of “distributing any written material whatsoever”. Apparently holding a sign is a separate offence, but in a heart-warming act of generosity he let me off that one.

Needless to say, I have a problem with these laws. For one, these laws clearly don’t apply to everybody. I mean, in the middle of the mall is a newsagent which does nothing except distribute written material, and the entire stretch is filled with signs advertising endless businesses and products. So obviously this law isn’t for any moral reason since the exact offences are permitted on a mass scale by the right people. Why is it there? To make sure that it’s only businesses who have the right to do these things? Well the mall is public space, I don’t see why a privately owned business should have more rights there than anyone else.

I asked the council ranger if he was familiar with the (successful) campaign in the early 80′s for free speech in the mall. He said he was but wrote the fine anyway, he can rest assured that like those activists back then I won’t be paying the fine nor will I stop exercising my free speech. I lost quite a bit of time being held up by him but wasn’t going to let him stop me doing anything, so after leaving him I walked the entire way around the perimeter he had DSC02202 (1)told me I wasn’t allowed in, continuing to hand out my flyers.

As I walked around occasionally stopping for conversations, a few people asked me why Australia should be more independent from the US. “America,” I replied, “is the world’s biggest terrorist. They invade other countries, overthrow governments, crush dissent and abuse human rights all to expand the wealth and power of their own elites.” To my amazement, several people said “I know that, but doesn’t that mean we want to be on their side?”

I didn’t know what to say. I don’t even agree with that for one – the US is in decline and can only really bring Australia down with it. But more importantly, what kind of reasoning is that? I know that no one ever completely lives up to their ideals, but surely morality is meant to be the basis for our decision making and pragmatism comes in when that is impossible, not the other way around. I wonder how many other decisions people make each day using the same reasoning – “I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

This world is full of walls and shackles that restrict us, but regardless of any of them, nobody can ever claim to be free while they act against their own conscience. To those people I met, and indeed to the council ranger, I can only hope that the effect of my action was that they saw someone standing up for what they believed was right, no matter how futile and ridiculous it seems.

Which is a good segue into my final observation. Somewhere between the council ranger, the somewhat unenthusiastic response and the fact that I was out there on my own, by the evening I was battling on but feeling a little dispirited. By the time I was ready to go, I still had a small stack of flyers in my hand. Again unwilling to feel like I had been defeated, I went to a couple of train stations and stuffed flyers inside copies of mX that were sitting on their stand.

Obviously my little one-man act was never going to bring down the US Empire. Not even challenge Australia’s support of it. I don’t even pretend that I’m building some kind of revolutionary organisation – the flyer was completely anonymous with no contact details on it. Why even bother?

I guess there are a few reasons. I’ve already mentioned a few times doing small actions just to remind yourself that you haven’t been completely defeated. In my less hopeful moments I think that’s why I do these things. Like Ammon Hennacy said so beautifully, “I might not change the world, but I’m damn sure it won’t change me.”

Or sometimes I think that it’s to honour those whose voice goes unheard, or those who came before me and gave their all for the struggle to make a better world. That when I think of the opportunities I have and others who would wish they had the same, I can’t just do nothing. But mostly I think that doing acts like this one is like broadcasting radio waves out into the atmosphere. Not knowing if anyone is listening but knowing that as long as your transmission is going, others can tune in. That maybe it resonates with what they are already doing or thinking, or maybe it is a message that they’d never heard before but were waiting for.

And once you’ve broadcasted it, no one can stop it. It stays there in the air, keeps travelling, maybe even gets relayed by a bigger transmitter who sees it and is inspired to take their own action. Maybe nobody is even tuning in. But as people scan from one station full of ads and rehashed ideas to another, they’ll catch just a flicker of something different. A frequency you’d never noticed was there. And just hearing that glimpse of it makes you wonder what else could be possible.

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A Wolf in Wolves’ Clothing

The self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort is currently on a world speaking tour, and last night graced us with his presence at Brisbane’s convention centre. A few of us from the Brisbane catholic worker community thought there was another side of the story that needed telling, so we dressed up in our best clothes and handed out this flyer to the attendees. We lasted about three minutes inside before being kicked out by security (who apparently made good on their threat to call the cops), but handed out the rest of our flyers out the front. Then we raided the dumpster nearby and went home.

A Wolf in Wolves’ Clothing

The success of the movie and book “The Wolf Of Wall Street” rides on the back of a familiar scenario in Hollywood – it banks on the fact that while we might be morally against Jordan Belfort’s actions and excesses, we are still seduced by the glamour and wealth.

Movies like this might claim to critique Belfort’s activities, but by focussing on the glamorous spoils of his plunder and not the lives of those whose money he stole, all it does is glorify the notion of getting rich from the exploitation of others.

Belfort may not be using dubious stock market tactics to get rich these days, but the fact that on the back of the movie, this convicted criminal can tour the world getting people to pay at least $125 to hear him speak shows that the glamour of his ill-gained wealth still holds an appeal. Belfort is of course quoted as saying about his speaking tours “this year I’ll make more than I ever made in my best year as a broker.”

The irony of Jordan Belfort’s story is that he was able to con others using the same myth that was the basis of his own wealth – that you can get rich without having to work for it or worry about the consequences on others. Maybe it is this same myth that is at the heart of his continuing popularity.

But Belfort’s pump and dump scheme perfectly represents the inevitable conclusion of this story – our riches only ever come at the expense of others, and every bubble eventually bursts.

While the story of Jordan Belfort and others like him remains our dominant cultural narrative, this is the end that awaits us all – we may get rich, but we will always be wary of others trying to steal our wealth, or the consequences of our actions coming back to bite us. On a global level, the spoils of our pursuit of wealth are plain to see – corrupt governments and businesses, ecological crisis, resource wars and a global financial system on the brink of collapse.

But an alternative story to the wolves of Wall Street exists. A story of possibility where we don’t take more than we need and don’t seek to gain at the expense of others. It might not make for movies as dramatic or glamorous, but it gives us more chance of a happy and fulfilled life, a more equal world and maybe even a sustainable future for humanity.

For this to become our cultural narrative will require quite a shift in our thinking, especially considering who has the resources in our society to tell the stories that make it to our screens. But to transform our own lives is as simple as a decision to seek true happiness instead of ever-expanding wealth, and to acknowledge other people’s lives as just as important as our own. And that step is completely up to us.

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The problem with non-violence

“The only problem with non-violence,” he tells me, “is this: what happens when you’re being attacked and you need to use violence to resist?”

It really, honestly, is a valid question. It’s not his fault we’re constantly force-fed myths of violence in self-defence, from our movie and television screens to our governments and militaries, telling us that violence is only used to protect ourselves.

He’s not the first person to point out this problem with non-violence though. Any time the idea of non-violence is talked about, someone will inevitably bring this up. Possibly elaborated into some hypothetical situation that involves Australia being invaded; or somebody advancing on you with a knife, so out of their mind they can’t possibly be reasoned with.

It’s a flaw of human nature that we almost always, in any conflict situation, can only ever envision ourselves as the innocent party. It’s what makes resolving interpersonal disputes so difficult, and global conflicts even harder.

But the problem with talking about non-violence in terms of hypothetical situations is that it pretends that violence also only exists in a hypothetical realm. Even while Australia was involved in fighting two long, expensive and brutal wars overseas, I would still have people ask how I could defend a philosophy of non-violence if we were to be one day invaded.

This view of violence though is blind to the violence that is happening all around us – that our nation was built on the dispossession and murder of aboriginal people; that our wealth is perpetuated by the exploitation of the labour and natural resources of the developing world; that our lifestyle and the climate change that comes from it is devastating the poorest people in the world, who are most affected by climate change yet did the least to cause it. That our nation has been involved in wars of aggression supporting the inhumane empire that is the United States, that our military also collaborates in training other notorious human rights abusers, like the Indonesian and (most recently) Chinese armies.

Even our most heroic stories of violence are based on pretty shaky foundations – as the fervour builds for the centenary of ANZAC Day next April, far too few people are asking the question of why exactly our troops were invading the shoreline of Turkey to help the British Empire fight a war against Germany.

And we’ve just seen Peter Cosgrove appointed Governor-General (and a knight!), his reputation built on Australia’s involvement in helping East Timor gain its independence in the late 90′s. It doesn’t take a great detective to discover that before then, Australia had been knowingly training the Indonesian army to kill East Timorese for a quarter of a century, or that straight after it gained its independence, East Timor was swamped with Australian companies coming to take its natural resources while the Timorese  people remained in desperate poverty (their GDP per capita still one thirtieth of Australia’s).

East Timor is currently taking Australia to the International Court Of Justice claiming that it was coerced into signing the Timor Sea Treaty in 2002, gifting Australia 80% of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields. The claims include that while negotiating the treaty, Australia was spying on meetings of the newly formed Timorese government. Australia’s response was to in December send ASIO agents to the office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing Timor, and confiscate the evidence on which they were building their case.

In our context of widespread violence, the call to non-violence is not a hypothetical inactivity while someone beats you up. It is the process of identifying where violence is currently happening in our society, and attempting to resist the tide of violence and build peaceful, non-exploitative alternatives. Not merely the absence of violence, but what Gandhi called “satyagraha”, or “truth force”.

So in answer to my friend’s question that started this article, my answer would be: Sure. If someone attacks you, hit them back to resist if you need to. Kick them in the balls and run away. If we have a movement for justice which (as history would say is probable) is resisted with force by those who stand to lose, then it might be necessary to fight in self-defence. But non-violence is not about hypotheticals. It is about transforming ourselves, our communities and our society away from the cycles of violence and to a more just, selfless and peaceful way.

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The ghosts of Wollar are alive at Leards Forest

I left my hometown of Mudgee at the start of 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of open-cut coal mines in the region went from one to three. While I probably would have considered myself an environmentalist at the time, I didn’t do anything to try to stop the development of these mines. To be honest, I don’t think at that point the thought had ever crossed my mind that you could.

Nor did many around town seem to think there were any problems with the new mines. A lot of people in town already worked at the one coal mine at Ulan, and nobody seemed to see the new mines as something to worry about. Most of Mudgee was apathetic, but unknown to me, the rural communities of Wollar and Ulan (where the mines were to be built) had been locked in a seismic battle – neighbour against neighbour, farmers against mining company, conservationists against government.

Having left town, it was only at a distance that I was drip fed information about the progress of the Wilpinjong and Moolarben mines and their impact on the local community. With pain and disbelief I heard the news that Wollar – the rural refuge for hippies and the place where my friends had grown up – no longer existed. The whole township had been excavated, tossed into the furnace and pumped into the atmosphere.

Then I heard that The Drip, the phenomenally beautiful gorge and aboriginal birthing site in the Bylong Valley, that I had climbed and played in and marveled at as a kid, had been leased to the Moolarben coal mine.

The full story of those mines and their impact on those rural communities is a long and tragic one that I don’t know enough of to do justice to. Sharyn Munro’s book “Rich Land Waste Land” is the best resource for hearing the voices of these and many other communities around the country who have faced the destruction of coal mines.

While I was living away I also heard that the community had begun to be less accommodating to the coal companies. Mudgee was outraged at the news that The Drip had been secretly sold off. A local campaign to save it began. A proposed fly-in, fly-out village for the mine was met with local opposition, forcing it out to the smaller farming community of Turill, who also didn’t want it but didn’t have the people power to stop it. I don’t know how much the people of Mudgee celebrated that victory, but next to a giant hole in the ground, polluted waterways and an entire village wiped off the map, it surely is the smallest of consolation prizes.

Of course, another thing that has happened since then in that region is the Eddie Obeid corruption scandal – where former NSW Labor resource ministers Obeid and Ian McDonald were revealed to have, among many other things, used their insider knowledge in mining tenders in the Bylong region to amass huge wealth through complex company structures that were fronts for the Obeid family. While the Sydney press trumpeted it as “corruption on a scale not seen since the rum corps”, the locals at Wollar and Ulan could only shake their heads. Whatever dodgy deals occurred when these mines were approved by the same Labor government, it was too late to undo them.

Let’s fast forward to a year and a half ago, when I heard that a couple of dedicated environmentalists were camping out in the Leards Steat Forest near Boggabri, NSW. They were trying to support the local farmers in their struggle against a proposed new mine at Maules Creek. For a long time now, climate justice has been to me one of the most pressing issues anyone interested in the future of our planet needs to be standing up for. But it was also the memory of Wollar that drew me out to the Leards Forest.

The first time I went to Leards, there were barely half a dozen of us at the camp while I was there. It was summer and brutally hot. We talked about doing actions but in the week I was there they just didn’t come together. Still, I loved being out in the bush, letting it heal me of all the craziness and industrial sickness of the city. We went on koala spotting missions, to try to prove what would be lost if the forest was bulldozed. I met and talked with local farmers, and with Sharyn Munro, who has traveled the country collecting the stories of those who have been the losers in the mining boom.

It was a year before I got a chance to go back to Leards Forest. I had stayed updated and tried to support the cause where I could, but it felt so good getting back to that camp and that forest, say hello to old friends and new comrades. In the time I’d been away, the issue had grown in prominence and at this point there were at least 20 people who had been brought out to the forest from all over the country to help out.

The bush was still there too, for now at least (there was quite a bit less of it to be honest) – beautiful and rugged, with its rocky soil, box gums and cypress pines, those huge sunsets across the plains, the star-filled skies at night. In the distance I could hear the rumble of a coal mine operating 24-7, but still that bush was working its magic on me again.

A blockade camp is a place of extremes. Even hitch-hiking down there, talking about the issue was measured, taking in all viewpoints and prefacing statements with “yeah, but…” On a blockade there’s no need for that kind of beating around the bush – it’s only greenies and miners out there, on opposing sides. For years I’ve heard police say “I’m only doing my job” as they drag you off or hold you in line at demonstrations. I’ve never taken it as a valid rule of ethics,  but it’s a bit like that in the bush as you try your best to hold up work on the mine. You can look the worker in the eye – you both know where you stand. Both just doing your jobs.

But blockading is much more than what most of us call our jobs. Sneaking around at night dodging security to set up actions, sitting in a group trying to formulate plans. Reclaiming the sense of adventure that in our city lives of routine and busyness we only get to live out vicariously through the movie screen. Strangers become co-conspirators, ordinary people become heroes as we put our bodies on the line, resisting the destruction we normally feel so powerless to stop.

I interviewed a few people who were planning to get arrested for the first time – two women from Melbourne who were locking on to excavators, one guy from NSW who would be sitting up in a tree. In their voices you could sense the excitement. I not only heard it, I felt it too. In our lives where so much of our experience is mediated – the music we listen to, screens we watch, things we own – this time we were at the centre of the action, trying to create the world we dream of.

I went out to Leards again since then too. The camp had been evicted from the state forest, the Narrabri Shire Council’s ludicrous excuse being that it was due to bushfire concerns. But they had set up a new camp on the property of a local farmer, and kept doing actions, often with a wonderful creativity and sense of humour. People had kept on coming out, wanting to be involved.

That time it was only a short stay, and we didn’t have a lot of luck doing actions that held up work, but I still loved it anyway. We did work on the campsite, setting it up to hopefully be there as long as it will take. Before I left I went to a meeting at Narrabri, where 600 farmers met and talked about how they could stop coal seam gas exploration in the region. As I went back up north I was planning when I would next return.

The story of Wollar isn’t unique, there are a number of communities that have been decimated by mining and written off as just another expense. But neither is the story of Maules Creek. Across the country there are people getting together and saying that no matter what our government and mining companies might believe; our communities, our forest, our climate, and our lives are not something that can just be dug up and sold off.

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My top 10 songs of 2013

Another year ends, and all those music lists remind me how out of touch I still am. Still, making this list has come to be something I really look forward to each year. And as always, there was a lot of rad music made in 2013.

 

Paddy McHugh and the Goldminers – The snowmen

My favourite Paddy McHugh moment of the year actually didn’t involve this song. It was at a show when he introduced his old Sydney City Trash classic “Just The Country Coming Out In Me” by saying “I’m from the country, and I’m fucking proud of it.” I’ve lived in the city a long time now, but my whole body felt a rush of country pride during that song that I knew the people in the room who weren’t from the country would never understand.

Paddy’s album of this year, Trials And Cape Tribulations, is just a magnificent album that shows just how good folk music can be – it tells our history and our stories with heart, compassion and wit. And he is also a lovely bloke.

 

Year Of Scummery – Wadonga

Advance warning: there is a lot of folk punk in this list. Every year is a good year for people who like folk punk, but maybe my tastes or range are getting narrower these days. Anyway, Year Of Scummery were a folk punk institution this year – hitching and riding freight trains around the country, playing shows and busking with an ever-evolving cast of musicians joining in.

They did an album as well, but it doesn’t really capture the experience that is Year Of Scummery live, which I think this video does pretty well. Every show was great, but my best memory of the year would have to be a show we did in a Brisbane laundromat. Cam was looking like the crustiest man alive, and as he thrashed at his ukelele and screamed out the words, a few people very nervously edged into the room holding their baskets of washing.

 

Vélociraptor – Up the library bums

One of the highlights of the year for me was in April organising a tour of shows for the first time. My travelling companions, and in fact the inspiration for the tour, were Melbourne/France folk punk duo Vélociraptor. I saw them play 5 sets in a week, so their songs are pretty well imprinted on my mind. I still enjoy their album now though.

It was inspiring for me to hang out with other people doing DIY music and to try to organise a DIY tour myself. It wasn’t quite the epic trek across the country that you read about American bands doing, but it was pretty awesome still. Two of the venues we played had libraries in the room, so it was fitting for the band to play this tribute to hanging out in the library.

 

Sweet Teens – Hot breath on cold breast

In this list last year I included the song “All Indoors” by Tom Denton. A chance encounter with Tom in Sydney led to me doing a couple of shows with him, where he stunned the crowd with moments of genius. And that’s not just normal music journalism hyperbole. I guess you have to see it to understand, but something amazing happens when Tom picks up a guitar.

A bit later came his album with his band Sweet Teens, which matched Tom’s crazy poetry with catchy, mostly upbeat guitar rock. The result is an album that is fun, moving, smart, funny and deserving to be heard by more people than it has been.

 

Carrie and the Cut Snakes – We will be forgotten

In January, the long awaited Carrie and the Cut Snakes debut album was launched. In the middle of the year, Carrie left us for the home of country music, Texas. Brisbane lost a great musician and a great person, but she left us at least with this album, and the women’s art collective she worked so hard to start.

Carrie’s music is beautifully honest and deeply personal, and I find this song so moving. She has told me that it means a lot to her as a song, that it expresses a lot of her personal spirituality. Hopefully those Americans are enjoying it as much as I do.

 

Yes I’m Leaving – Creepyman

Ever since I first saw them play in a Stockton loungeroom years ago, Yes I’m Leaving have been one of my favourite bands. Any new music or chance to see them play is cause for celebration, and this year I got plenty of both, with a new album and their first trip to Brisbane (plus shows in Sydney and Newcastle, naturally).

The shows were predictably great, so is the album, and this song is up there with the best the band has done – that riff is ridiculously huge and heavy.

 

The Wild – Dreams are maps

Out of a very competitive field, The Wild have always been one of the most posi and enthusiastic of all folk punk bands – like motivational speakers with acoustic instruments. On this year’s “Dreams Are Maps” though, the band’s music has a new found grandiosity (and so many drum rolls!) It’s still folk punk, but folk punk played by people who’ve been listening to a lot of Arcade Fire. The result is an absolutely joyous album to listen to.

It’s a great album where I don’ really have a favourite track. I chose this one though because it’s a good example of the spirit of the album, and I love the lyric about waking in the park.

“When I woke up in a park surrounded by friends,
I knew these felon politicians wouldn’t stop us again.”

It could be written about the Occupy movement, but then anybody who’s ever slept in a park with their friends around them can probably relate a little bit to what they’re saying.

 

Virginia Sook – Frederic

I had heard that Virginia Sook were good but never heard the music when I contacted lead singer Lindsay about playing as part of the tour with Vélociraptor I mentioned earlier. Two thirds of a year later, I have seen them play loads of times and have definitely become a fan. Their delicate songs and lyrical imagery make every Virginia Sook show great, and the album that came out towards the end of the year was just as good.

I like all of Lindsay’s songs, but I had to pick one so I’ve gone for this one, inspired by the death of a pet, an existential crisis, and author Frederic Beigbeder.

 

Albion Gold – Bored and braindead

Another new musical discovery for me this year, Albion Gold are now one of my favourite Brisbane punk bands (even though they’re from the Gold Coast and lead singer Laura Mardon is originally from London). There’s nothing too technical about Albion Gold’s music, just speedy, catchy punk with an occasional metal guitar lick thrown in. But it’s fun, and Laura is not just a great singer, but visually transfixing as she jumps, crouches, stomps, paces around and spits out the lyrics.

I actually maybe like Laura’s solo acoustic stuff even more, but there are enough acoustic guitars in this list already, and Albion Gold were definitely a musical highlight of the year for me. Plus how could I leave out a song with lyrics like:

I’m sick of the social order
I’m sick of slut shaming
sick of the patriarchal system
and patriotic tribalism
I heard you telling rape jokes on your lads night out
you ever tell me to get my tits out for the boys
Well, I’ll kick your fucking teeth out

 

Ghost Mice – House of the undying

Definitely one of my lowlights of the year was getting kicked out of Brother Juniper House, the community/hospitality house myself and a group of others had started in South Brisbane. And then seeing us go our separate ways, taking with us the dreams we had talked so much about.

The same week we packed up the last of our stuff and had one last cup of tea, there appeared on the internet a split release from Ramshackle Glory and Ghost Mice, two of my favourite American bands. And in there, closing the Ghost Mice side , was this ode to punk houses. Brother Juniper House was definitely not a punk house, but there’s still a lot of our house there in the lyrics, like “I heard that someone’s coming to stay, no one knows them but that’s ok”, “the dumpstered bagels are getting hard”, and sadly  “it’s bound to end the same, a failure to communicate.”

Even now listening to the song is a bit bittersweet (not helped by the band’s proposed Australian tour falling through), but I can’t help but have a bit of Ghost Mice’s trademark optimism rub off on me as they sing “this house will never die.”

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Feast of the Holy Innocents

I love the Christmas story. Despite Santa Claus and his mountains of tinsel and useless junk, I still love the Christmas story.

I love it partly because I think it’s important to remember the stories that define us as a culture. White Western society doesn’t really have ancient mythology going back tens of thousands of years to give us a sense of belonging to the world and to our own culture, but our obsession with progress and the process of secularisation are helping us to forget what culture we do have.

Or maybe we always forgot it. Because while a historical trait of European society has been the colonisation and exploitation of the rest of the word and the building of empires, the Christmas story is one of a very different kind of king.

You probably know the story well enough that I don’t have to go over it in detail. It’s the story of God appearing on Earth, but there’s a few twists in the tail. In the outskirts of the Roman empire, a baby is conceived out of wedlock to a Jewish couple.  Due to an order from the Roman rulers, the parents are forced to have the baby away from home. Forced to give birth in a stable rather than in a room, the unglamorous birth is attended by lowly shepherds while the social and religious elite are completely unaware. No Woman’s Day exclusive photoshoot, and no grand divine act to announce to the world that God had become incarnate. No, the Christmas story is about a couple being shunted this way and that by people with more power than them, ignored and outcast. It’s the ultimate statement of what the glory of God really looks like.

And then there’s the “Magi from the East” (aka “wise men”), which brings me to why I’m writing this. It’s mostly forgotten now that Santa Claus and Westfield have bought Christmas, but for a long time in christian tradition, the story of Herod and the Magi (you know, between where Mary and Joseph brave the Christmas shopping rush and where they get a bargain at the boxing day sales) was remembered on the 28th of December as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

This is one of my favourite parts of the Christmas story. Even Yoda wrote a Christmas carol about it (if you didn’t get that, don’t worry). While all the rich and powerful of Jerusalem and Rome are ignoring the birth of Jesus, three men in the East see a star that tells them something significant has happened. If you’re paying attention you find out these things. They travel West to see who has been born, bringing gifts. But when the get to Judea and ask the king Herod if he knows about it, he says no. He’d sure like to though.

The magi keep going, eventually finding the baby Jesus. In a dream they are told not to go back to Herod, so they return a different way. Herod responds with tyrannical rage, ordering the death of every child in Bethlehem under two years of age. Jesus survives because in another dream, his father is told to flee to Egypt. Like I heard a friend of mine say the other day, lucky they didn’t try to come to Australia.

This is an interesting part of the story because this is where a line gets drawn. While the manger birth shows Jesus being ignored and forgotten, the story of Herod is the first of many instances of Jesus being considered a direct threat by those in power. One that needs to be wiped out by any means necessary.

Jesus is rarely a neutral figure. He might have been called the Prince of Peace, but he also said “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36, quoting Micah 7.) The kingdom of God – of love, service and justice, is in direct opposition to the kingdoms of humanity – of money, power and violence.

This is what the magi learn in this story. While the Feast of the Holy Innocents traditionally remembers the slaughtered children as the first martyrs of christianity, it should also remember the three magi as the first christians to commit civil disobedience in standing up for what’s right. And also King Herod as neither the first nor the last person who succumbed to the temptations of power, and the slippery slope it leads to.

So tomorrow, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, I hope we can remember all those innocent people around the world whose lives have been lost. In war, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Southern Sudan. In poverty, that so often the greediness and exploitation of the (Christian) Western world has helped to create. In oppressive regimes, from West Papua to Palestine to North Korea and all over the world, where the role of Herod is played out again and again.

I hope we also remember the magi and their courageous actions. It’s the duty of all of us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it, from our neighbourhoods to the corridors of power. Every act of love and resistance is a step towards creating a better world, but can also act as an inspiration to others – an invitation to join the glorious struggle that is pursuing true justice in our own lives and in our world.

And I hope we remember Herod, the despot king, who at another time (recorded in history but not in the bible), killed his own wife and two sons. We all are constantly faced with with temptations or compromises that will give us that little bit of extra power, wealth or recognition. Most of us like to think we would never order the mass killing of children, but I think history shows us that by the time you do get that kind of power, there’s no turning back. Part of the Christmas story that shouldn’t be forgotten is the warning for us to be less like Herod, and more like Jesus, who said:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27)

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A review of the Insane Clown Posse at the Hi-fi

Everybody has things in their past that you would never really guess and will never know unless they are randomly prompted in conversation. You know, the things that are such a dim memory you nearly forget them yourself. Here’s one of mine: for the year between my 14th and 15th birthdays, my favourite band was the Insane Clown Posse. That’s right friends, I was a juggalo.

It’s rare that this comes up. Unlike a lot of the bands I listened to at that age, I can’t really remember any lyrics or even song titles. They were something that came into my life (introduced to me by this kid named Jeremy who moved out to Mudgee from Sydney bringing all kinds of cool stuff) suddenly and disappeared (I discovered punk and indie music, and got a little bit uncomfortable with the lyrics of the gangsta rap I was listening to) just as quickly.

But I loved it at the time. There were a group of us at school who were into ICP and their “dark carnival”. We used to quote lyrics at each other, and managed to get their whole catalogue on our meagre pocket money by buying an album each and getting our one friend with a cd burner to distribute copies to everyone. I used to draw the little “hatchet man” logo, and even would try to come up with plans as to how I could taste the Detroit cheapo soda “Faygo” that the band would sing about.

If you’re not familiar with the band, it really is too strange for me to try to explain here. You’ll have to look it up yourself. I’ll just share my one favourite story about them. In the late 90′s the band was signed to Disney-owned Hollywood Records. After a complaint from conservative Americans the label tried to cut the band without any severance pay and without giving back the master tapes of their forthcoming album. The band’s manager told Hollywood Records CEO Michael Eisner that the juggalos (the band’s devoted fans) would “burn down Disneyland.” Miraculously, the label and band quickly came to an agreement.

These memories were well and truly crammed into the darkest corners of the back of my mind until it was announced earlier this year that ICP would be touring Australia. Once I had heard this information there was only one conceivable course of action. I had to go. And so it was that on Thursday night, I found myself successfully scamming my way into the Hifi in West End for a surreal experience I will try my best to relate to you.

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The highlight of the show was really before it started. Despite the early starting time of 7pm, like clockwork at that minute there appeared at the Hi-fi hundreds of juggalos waiting to get in. There were loads of faces painted, ICP shirts and a definite gender imbalance. The doors didn’t quite open on time, but people happily killed time by singing lyrics together and chanting either “family!” or “whup whup!”. The queue stretched out for literally hundreds of metres around the block. Some guy came out onto his verandah to angrily complain to the venue management about the noise. Meanwhile, the patrons and staff of nearby establishments stared in open-mouthed astonishment. The feral face-painted masses had invaded yuppified Boundary Street.

To try to sneak in I had to wait for a while, so I didn’t stick around, but I did have a couple of brief conversations with very friendly fans. When I came back I witnesses a couple of 4zzz guys interviewing juggalos. One guy said, “Australia is an extremely racist country. People of all colours are racist towards others. The only place where there is no racism is here tonight.”

I got inside to a crowd chanting “ICP! ICP!” in anticipation. The curtain opened to a huge cheer, and then there they were, bouncing around the stage. Two men in their 40′s, wearing black and white facepaint, truly living the Peter Pan dream of never having to grow up.

There were a handful of others dressed as clowns (through the set they would change into zombies, grim reapers, demons and a few other things I can’t remember), who threw confetti into the crowd. Within the opening couple of songs, the first cases of soft drink appeared and were shaken up and sprayed into the crowd. Face paint, confetti, spraying soft drink? I know all the songs are about killing people and the juggalos are on the FBI’s list of dangerous gangs, but honestly this has more of the vibe of a 12 year old’s birthday party.

What about the music? The beats are pretty simple, and usually either circus style keyboards or rap-rock crossover guitar. There’s not much great variety there, and neither is there in the lyrics, which are low on political correctness but high in stupidity. And usually involve murder or non-romantic sex. Or both. There is the running theme of religious themes and imagery thrown in there as well, which is truly a bizarre mixture, but there you go.

It’s not really about the music though, despite the fact that a few people around me know all the words and are dancing enthusiastically. It’s more of a communal ritual – being with the “family” and getting drenched in the endless supply of soft drinks that are being sprayed into the crowd.

Violent J announced that they would be playing their last song “but there’s still lots of faygo left”, which must have been a cue because as soon as the song began, people started rushing the stage and opening the bottles until soon there were about 50 people on stage spraying the stuff around. I couldn’t possibly count how many bottles got emptied, box after box kept being brought out. People on stage are dancing, hugging, soaked. It’s an amazing sight.

Everyone on stage reminded me of another gig I snuck into at the Hi-fi a couple of years ago – New York street punks The Casualties. That time I think there were more people on stage at one point than in the audience. they have the same rhetoric of “family” and “us against the world”, and have a uniform as well – mohawks and patches. The same simplistic music that seems more like a means to an end than an end in itself.

One difference though is that the Casualties show was one of the most violent I’ve ever been to. I saw two people punched straight in the face in the pit. Tonight there is no hint of violence, and despite the audience being probably 80% male, no creepiness or harrassment of women that I could see. It really was just a big kid’s party.

At some point the band snuck off stage and left the delirious juggalos marinating in their soft drink. The lights came up, but nobody left yet, instead staying and chanting “fa-mi-ly! fa-mi-ly!” Soon enough the security started to corral people out, except get this: the security guards, who had been standing at the stage as per usual for Hi-fi shows, were completely doused in soft drink and covered in glitter. In those circumstances it’s pretty hard to be intimidating.

The crowd started moving out anyway, leaving the most bizarre sight – the front section of the Hi-fi was a massive pool of soft drink, ankle deep. One guy did a belly slide in it to big cheers and emerged fist-pumping. Did I mention kid’s parties? I had managed to avoid the soft drink geysers the whole night, but on the way out a lady came up to me saying “we’re family!” and hugged me, leaving a residue of sticky soda on the front of my shirt.

Outside the venue, the joyful family vibe remained – more chanting, more “whup whup” (I don’t know what it means either), overweight guys walking around with their shirts off. Like any good show at the Hi-fi, the milling crowd blocked off that little street and needed to be shepherded around by the security. I hung around for a while, not really doing anything except soaking in the atmosphere, until it was only the dregs left still there.

The juggalo phenomenon is pretty interesting I must say. I mean, it would be easy to pick holes in it or make fun of them, but I think they bring up so many interesting questions. How did this whole cult thing develop? What binds these people together? Is it really just a crappy hip hop group from the other side of the world? What do juggalos stand for?

There is a general anti-mainstream society sentiment, and occasionally something vaguely resembling a political idea in the lyrics, but that’s pretty hard to find amongst the cartoon violence and teenage boy humour. There’s the religious theme, and maybe that’s it – like many religions it’s about personal transformation. There’s definitely that sense of self-empowering, motivational speaker, community talk that outsider sub-cultures sometimes produce. Maybe it really is like family – those intangible but unquestionable bonds that tie you to other people for life. In a society lacking in community and connection, the wicked clowns fill a gap that people need.

However you see it, there is an enthralling and intoxicating energy to the whole thing. I see a lot of amazing bands regularly, who I would confidently claim are musically better than ICP. But it’s very rare that I leave a show feeling as happy as I did on Thursday night.

 

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