Learning to dance

I had moved (more or less) in time with music before, but I don’t think I had ever really danced until I did it in places you weren’t supposed to. Late nights in abandoned warehouses and empty blocks; or shutting down a road with a joyous mob moving to the sounds of a wheelie bin converted into a sound system. By the time the police close in around the dancefloor, you have already shed all the inhibitions that normally encumber free movement. It’s only momentarily, but for a second (even without drugs) you can glimpse the freedom of losing yourself in the music; of unrestrained connection with the others around you. Whether they are friends or strangers; you move in synchronicity, and in little glances and smiles you communicate the sense that you are sharing something rare – the transformation of ourselves and our surroundings into something that moves to a rhythm other than the tedious beat of normality.

I’d done bushwalks too; and marvelled at the natural beauty, enjoyed the serenity of strolling along at a slower and quieter pace. But that never compared with the feeling of walking where I wasn’t supposed to. Walking through the forest at night to reach a logging coupe we were going to blockade; or using the cover of the bush to get onto a military base and disrupt the “war games” they were undertaking. In those moments I felt like a part of nature, not a spectator of it. The sounds and sights of the forest felt like they were supporting us – covering us up or spurring us on. And each step we took felt filled with purpose – we walked not just from one place to another, but from one self to another – the powerless and passive bystander we were once reduced to into a person who, successfully or not, at least did all they could to influence destiny.

I can go on… no fancy banquet ever tasted as good as the first time I reclaimed food from a supermarket dumpster and served it up on the street for free. I never really got the urge to paint until the night I took a spraycan and redecorated some of the grey walls I would pass on my way around the city. That city never really felt like home until I rolled out my sleeping bag in one of its parks rather than pay for somewhere to stay.

So many of us sleepwalk through our existence for so long – taking life as it’s set down in front of us, making the best choice we can from a limited set of options, vaguely experiencing life in the same way we vaguely engage in the TV shows we watch to pass time on the couch then instantly forget.

Though we often feel like the way things are is just how it is, of course it’s not by nature that the possibilities of the universe have been narrowed down to the choices on the supermarket shelf or the netflix menu. Most of the blame for that goes to a way of organising society that we are born into and forced to accept – a way that says money will be the mediator of all our exchanges. That everything n the world can be bought or sold and if you don’t have the money, then most of it is not for you. With the whole world – and not just property but knowledge and experience – walled off, we are forced to subsist on whatever crumbs we can get rather than creating the world around us.

Which is why transgressing social and legal boundaries can be such a powerful experience. The examples I gave may seem frivolous, but each of them were genuinely new experiences – familiar things but recast in a way that made me imagine what else could be done differently. Maybe my life contained other possibilities beyond what I had experienced or seen around me. Maybe the same was true of my city, or the way we organised society as a whole. More than any book or movie, it was these experiences of dancing through the parameters of social acceptability that made me believe a radically different self, and a radically different world, was really possible.

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Farmers and foreign aid

I’ve never been very fond of billboards. I don’t appreciate having advertisers with clear vested interests offering me unsolicited life advice as I walk down the street. I don’t like the fact that the majority of spaces of public art in our city are offered to the highest bidder to sell their products. I’m not that keen at the moment on having Clive Palmer’s Trump impersonation leering down at me every time I turn a corner.

Still, it’s rare that a billboard affects me so strongly that I swear out loud to no one in particular as I ride home. Yet that’s what I did the other night. It was one of those rotating digital billboards, and one of the things it shows are selected messages people send to the billboard company. And on this occasion the sign flashed up asking Why only give our farmers $12K to help but send more than $2billion overseas in aid?”

Now I should say here that I absolutely support drought relief payments to farmers. I grew up in rural Australia during the famous “Millenium Drought”, so I have some understanding of how droughts affect farmers in a way they have no power over. I still travel often to rural areas so have been following this drought over the last couple of years. At the start of this year for my radio show I interviewed climate scientist Andrew King about the drought. So at first I was glad that over the last month the concerns of rural Australia were finally making national news. Unfortunately, since then the commentary has taken a turn for the worse.

See, I also take quite an interest in foreign aid. Growing up through the era of the alter-globalisation and Make Povery History movements; a big part of my political education was learning about global poverty – its effects and its causes. My first political activism was volunteering for an overseas development organisation. This has been of enduring influence for me – my choice to live simply and sustainably is partly motivated by an awareness of the limited resources we have to go around the world’s population; and that knowledge helps keep in perspective whatever difficulties I personally face – that very useful three word slogan “first world problems”.

It has been with a disconsolate heart that I have watched Australia’s foreign aid budget reduced every year since the election of Tony Abbott in 2013. The United Nations in 1970 passed a resolution that developed economies would aim to to pay 0.7% of gross domestic product in overseas aid. Today half a dozen countries have lived up to that promise. Australia’s contribution got as high as 0.47% in 1974, but has now declined to its lowest ever point at 0.22%.

There are many reasons to pay foreign aid –  in your own interests as a tool of foreign policy (which has been the main defence the coalition government has offered this month), as a way of healing some of the ravages of colonisation (eg. Africa’s economic wealth was systematically carried out of the continent for centuries), and as a simple acknowledgement that though many people are born into poverty, no one deserves to be.

I can’t imagine how anyone with a passing knowledge of how much money is thrown around unnecessarily by various government departments, how much massive companies avoid paying tax while collecting government subsidies, and how tiny our foreign aid budget is in the context of the world’s needs; could complain about our overseas aid as an economic wrong.

Part of the reason people do may be that they have no idea of what our aid budget actually is (one study found Australians on average believe it is 17 times higher than it is in reality). But I think really, the response we have seen comes down to a pretty simple emotional response – the recipients of foreign aid (many of whom, of course, are farmers affected by drought in other places) are people seemingly different from us, who we never come into contact with. They are the perfect scapegoat for any problem – one that doesn’t force us to confront our own actions or those of people around us.

So at least in popular discourse, discussion about the drought rarely mentions what water security measures could be put in place. It rarely mentions the unlimited water licences given to mining companies while farmers count every drop. Or for that matter, how New Hope Coal’s massive expansion at Acland was ruled out by the land court on water security grounds yet they are now appealing with the apparent support of the government. Or the possibility that burning fossil fuels may have some responsibility for this drought and could lead to more extreme weather events in the future. No mention that right now in East Africa, droughts mean that 22 million people (including 9 million children) are not getting their basic nutritional needs met.

Natural human response it may be to want to lay the blame elsewhere, but it is alarming the way it has risen so strongly in our current context. In the last few years it seems like sentiments of racial division are rising. Dissatisfactions about immigration played a role in the election wins of Donald Trump and Brexit. Far-right anti-immigration groups are increasingly visible online and even in parliaments. In Australia we’ve seen refugees consistently dehumanised for years, leaving them demoralised and trapped on pacific island prisons. This year we’ve had sensationalised media reports of African gangs, and in the last month we’ve had an overtly anti-immigration op-ed from Andrew Bolt published in national newspapers, and former Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles supportively interviewing a neo-nazi on a national news program. All of these things have real life effects on real life people. Effects every bit as serious as what is being faced currently by farmers; but effects we don’t necessarily notice because these are people who are not like us.

Many Australians will generously dig into their pockets to support farmers affected by the drought. I applaud them for it, and I’ve given money too. But we can support those around us without having to draw boundaries between who is in and who is out. Uniting people encourages more helping one another by seeing the commonalities between us all. Divisions are likely to only exacerbate problems. On seeing that billboard the other night I took the only moral response I could – I went home and gave money to an overseas development organisation. Because I will never allow anyone, even for a second, to convince me that someone’s worthiness is based on where they come from or whether they are like us.

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Living in a house of hospitality

For most of the last six years, I have lived in two intentional “houses of hospitality” (we got kicked out of one then started another six months later). Now that’s not a term that’s used very often, so I’ll explain what I mean by it.

Essentially it means we have opened our doors to anybody who needs somewhere to stay – either short term (many travellers or people in emergency situations stay for a night or a few days) or longer (occasionally people stay for 3-6 months). Short term we never ask for payment, though if people stay more than a couple of weeks we ask them to contribute to rent. We don’t advertise anywhere, though through word of mouth and things like our presence on the street doing a weekly street meal means we have a pretty constant stream of people. It’s not uncommon for us to have a dozen or more people staying at our (rented, five bedroom) house between guests and permanent residents.

These houses have done other things (community meals, film/discussion nights, political activism, simple and communal living) but probably the most distinctive feature has been our emphasis on hospitality. Often it has been a wonderful experience, sometimes not – we have been physically threatened, lied to and stolen from by people we have welcomed in. We have had to ask questions about whether we are just enabling destructive behaviour and how to draw boundaries. We have little private space and our time is frequently interrupted by strangers arriving, or spent cleaning up the chaos of the house. And yet we very rarely turn anyone away. Recently a friend contacted me with a fairly reasonable question – “why do you live in a hospitality house?” I appreciated the query because it made me think again about the reasons. Once I had I thought I could share them here for everyone.

First off I should say we didn’t come up with the idea. Our house is part of a specific tradition of houses called the Catholic Worker movement, and through history there have been many other examples including temples, monasteries and shelters. In many cultures there is a norm of offering hospitality to strangers, and things like the couchsurfing website show that though uncommon, it is not extinct in our own culture. Still, I’ll offer this as an explanation of my own (my housemates would have similar) reasons.

First off, I do it because I have a house I can offer. A house is an example of an abundant resource – you can offer it to somebody else, yet you still have it for yourself. Some resources are finite and need to be limited, but many – like shelter – there is easily enough for everybody if we don’t take more than we need and we share what we have. If we take shelter as a basic human need, there is no reason why something as simple as a safe place to stay should not be available to everyone when it is so easy to offer.

Secondly, it’s fun and interesting having different people come. I haven’t travelled overseas very much, but I’ve had people from around the world come to my own loungeroom, as well as people from all kinds of different backgrounds and persuasions. I have few lonely nights at home alone, and when I travel myself there are often places I can stay because they are the homes of people who have stayed at my own house. Offering hospitality to anyone introduces us to a diversity of people we would just not come across in our lives otherwise; where we tend to gravitate towards people of similar ages, backgrounds and beliefs.

It can also make a real difference to the people who stay. I will never forget one random guy I met on the street one cold night and invited to come and stay. He told me in the morning I had saved his life. Most cases aren’t that extreme, but certainly plenty of people who come to our house are in pretty great need. Even the ones who are not, staying at our house offers an insight into a very different way of living (and not just because of our open doors) and thinking. As many people travel to try to discover more about the world and themselves, our house can offer a valuable new discovery.

Another reason is that it challenges me to put my beliefs into practice every day. It’s easy to say there should be no homelessness or people should be more generous and less selfish. But living the way we do forces us to understand the complexity of issues and to come into contact with our own selfishness and complacency in the face of others’ needs. It takes concepts like love, generosity and tolerance; even a critique of private property; from the realm of ideas and into the sometimes difficult world of praxis.

Similar to that, I have over the years subscribed to a pretty counter-cultural idea known as anarchism. The idea that no person should use force over any other; which when taken to its logical conclusion implies a possible society with no prisons, police or property laws; also without enforced taxation or the welfare state as we know it. It’s my belief that for such an ideology to hold any credibility, I have to be willing to engage with some of the more difficult issues that many in our society are happy to pass on to the state to deal with. It also keeps our politics grounded – issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and refugees; which don’t necessarily affect me personally at least become things I have personal contact with.

A long time ago I came to the conclusion that private property was a great big scam. Who allowed people to claim ownership of the earth they did nothing to create? And by what power did the first landlords take control of their property if not by violence? I rejected the system and lived without paying rent in squats for a while; but was lured back into the property market by friends wanting to rent a hospitality house and have dutifully paid my rent over the last few years. That’s been a sacrifice I’ve been happy to make, but to be honest the thought of paying rent just for somewhere to exist on the earth without that also going to a project overtly trying to create a better world would for me just be depressing.

“I’m not moving into one of your utopian experiments” was what a friend told me once when I offered him a room in one of those squats many years ago. Utopianism gets a bad wrap these days, but living in a hospitality house isn’t some kind of delusion – it’s a willingness to stake your house on the idea that we could live in a way very different to how the world is now. It’s also a belief that these changes can be brought about by ordinary people using the resources we already have at our disposal. It’s not easy to change the world, but with a few good friends we can change our immediate surroundings to be more like the kind of world we wish we lived in.

We offer our house up to those who walk in our doors as a roof over their heads, food in their belly, friendly faces but also as an alternative vision of what our homes, our lives and our world could be like. We also offer an invitation to be a part of trying to create that in our own flawed way. And that is something precious to us – something the occasional difficulties or inconveniences of living in this way can’t take away. So our doors will stay open. Come drop in some time.

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Through good times and bad with the Socceroos

Despite having one of the worst nicknames in sporting history (and I love a good pun, but that’s not even close), the Socceroos hold the odd place in my heart of being the only Australian national sporting team I have ever really cheered for.

Long before the most recent scandal the Australian cricket team always played with an unpleasant ruthlessness. Or were just too good to offer the emotional ups and downs following a sporting team should provide. The teams from other countries always seemed to have a bit more charisma as well as the classic underdog status.

Same goes for rugby league, where internationals often seem like exercises in ego for Australia. Aussie rules offers its own kind of national pride (it’s even in the name of the sport), but international rules games with Ireland just seem like acts of desperation. Other sports I’ve never really cared enough to watch, and something like the Olympics just allows for ugly displays of patriotic chest-beating (oi oi oi).

I don’t really believe in national allegiance – the idea that just by the fact someone is born on the same land mass as me they share more in common than people born elsewhere doesn’t really make sense; the thought that I somehow share in their success or failure is bizarre.

And yet there’s the Socceroos and the way my heartrate sneakily accelerates when they attack, how it skips when they try to defend. Even the fact that while I have intentionally missed every single television show of the last decade, I make an effort to find somewhere to watch the Socceroos’ big games.

See unlike many Australian sports stars, the Socceroos are underdogs. Underdogs on a global scale (the entire team wouldn’t command as much on the transfer market as superstars Neymar or Paul Pogba). But also underdogs in Australian society. Any soccer lover in Australia can tell you what it’s like – try to find the soccer in the back pages of the newspaper. Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters was the name of legendary former Socceroo Johnny Warren’s autobiography, so-called because they were the names he was called as a white Australian who loved the round ball. I think of Trevor Huon in Simon French’s classic Australian kids novel Cannily, Cannily, whose struggles to fit in at his new school were compounded by the fact he played soccer and not footy.

When I was growing up, being a soccer fan required commitment – it meant getting up/staying up to ridiculous hours to watch games. It meant tuning in to SBS every weekend or buying magazines months after they had come out in Europe to gain insight into the intriguing world of European leagues. It meant tolerating the sport’s petty administrative squabbles and the occasional ethnic sparring of fans. It meant subjecting yourself to the perennial tragedy of the national team’s failures.

I remember seeing Johnny Warren straight-facedly tell the story of a curse put on the Socceroos by an African witch doctor and how that explained the constant disasters. It was a long period of waiting – with hardly any games and even fewer with the best players allowed by their European clubs to play – for the eventual world cup qualifiers that determined whether we could participate in the global soccer party or watch from the outside like wallflowers at a dance.

That moment when it finally came in 2005 against Uruguay – and not only can I still remember jumping out of my seat and around the room, but I also still get goosebumps watching the shootout on youtube – was so special because it released the tension of three decades of failures. That’s what you can hear in the footage as Craig Foster screams his mic levels way into the red, and see as John Aloisi rips of his shirt and starts sprinting around the ground. It wasn’t just about going to the world cup – it was vindication for every migrant who never quite fit in with their rugby loving mates, every kid who preferred chasing the spherical ball to the oval one, every fan who spent their spare time learning how to pronounce “Ruud Gullit” or “Pedrag Mijatovic”.

Australian soccer was never the same afterwards – the national team gained a new respectability; but also that year the A-League started – ushering in a new level of corporate professionalism to the game locally. In 2006, Australia was accepted into the Asian confederation of FIFA, meaning there would be more competitive games and a more forgiving path to world cup qualification.

All positives, but in some ways it lost some of its distinctive character. I liked these clubs with strange names like Marconi and Sydney Olympic and their distinct ethnic histories. I liked the gateway to a whole other world that came from following it. The new clubs were depressingly corporate entities (club bosses included Westfield CEO Frank Lowy and Clive Palmer) with boring names like Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. It was a little bit like the punk music fan immersed in a whole underground subculture who watch their favourite band become just another bunch of rockstars on a big stage.

The A-League came in promising a new era, and in a way that’s what it has been. But it irks me that people want to forget the contribution to the game that all those old clubs, players and coaches made. The old NSL, which was dissolved to make way for the A-League, was developed by brave visionaries in the 70’s long before aussie rules or either rugby code had been game to build a competition that crossed state borders. People smugly insist on calling the sport “football” as though it’s something we’ve just imported from Europe and have no local tradition of. Many of us though used to follow the National Soccer League, and learned our skills playing soccer on the school field or local park.

I still play in those local parks when I can, but have to admit I am a long way from the most dedicated fan in the country. I can accept that these stakeholders who market the A-League etc do so out of a love of the game and that my sentiments are hardly their top priority. It’s pretty rare that I get around to watching a game, but I can guarantee you that I’ll be watching Australia’s games in the world cup (for once at mercifully reasonable hours). And I’ll be cheering them on, not just out of patriotic pride; but for Trevor Huon, Johnny Warren and all the rest of us who despite it all love Australian soccer.

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One person’s trash… (diving into dumpsters)

About eight years ago, I went dumpster diving for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means raiding the bins of supermarkets or other shops and taking out the edible food or other useful waste they throw out. I had read about it before, and more recently had met people who did it. So one night I got on my bike and went to check out the bin of the local supermarket. Fortunately I had some reserves of persistence, because it wasn’t until the third supermarket I checked that I found any good food. But when I opened the lid to that bin full of vegies and bread, I can honestly say it changed my life in many ways.

One of the more minor ways is that fairly regularly I am contacted by people wanting to interview someone about dumpster diving. Sometimes these are people in the media, sometimes university students. The most recent was an ABC journalist this week. Mostly though (the most recent being no exception), I feel like these people come with the story they want to write and try to shoehorn me (a real life dumpster diver) into it. So I figured if I wanted an article that accurately represented my thoughts on dumpster diving, I’d have to write it myself.

So back to that first night. Something clicked in my mind when I saw that bin full of good food. Never one for half measures, I decided that night that I wasn’t going to be buying groceries any more, and I pretty much haven’t since then. But it opened up new possibilities beyond that – I got involved in a weekly community meal that fed anyone who came along (carting dumpstered food to share on the train from Sydney’s southern suburbs to the inner west). Most significantly, I coupled dumpstering with the knowledge there were loads of buildings sitting unused and figured that by utilising this excess I could be free of this whole money business. Within a year I was living with no income, travelling around Australia and having all kinds of amazing adventures. But that’s another story.

In the ensuing years, I’ve eaten out of bins in cities and towns all around the country (plus a few in other countries). If I’m going past a bin I often check just out of curiousity even if I don’t especially need food. I’ve blessed/cursed (it’s all a matter of perspective) various houses where I’ve been a guest with piles of food. I’ve consistently cooked for free public meals on a weekly basis (currently at Food Not Bombs in Brisbane’s West End every Friday). I’ve fed whatever household I’ve lived in (which for most of that time has been at least half a dozen people, often many more); catered for meetings, parties and events; given mountains of food away to others who are more reticent to jump into bins.

I can claim to be one of the few people who has actually been arrested for dumpster diving, and have a few other interesting interactions with cops and workers, though to be honest these are pretty rare occurrences in what is usually an uneventful pastime. I’ve found working electronics, new clothes, bouquets of flowers and so much besides. Plus all the food and the recyclable packaging I have saved from landfill. I’ve taken countless people dumpstering for their first time (the look of absolute shock on the face of a Chinese friend being one memorable example), and walked arm in arm to the bin on romantic outings.

Dumpstering introduces you to foods you would never otherwise try. I remember chatting with my mum on the phone after the first time I ever found a daikon and trying to see if she knew what it was from my description. It also gives the gift of creativity in the kitchen when you learn to make tasty meals out of whatever random ingredients you get. I find supermarket shelves boring and overwhelming compared with the bins which always offer the element of surprise when you open the lid.

After all this time I’m pretty jaded, and nothing found in a bin can really surprise me. I still get a little rush of excitement when I find a block of chocolate or a bottle of chilli sauce; but on the other hand I have to be the bearer of bad news for all those people who put effort into keeping their soft plastic packaging and putting it in the supermarket recycle bins – I know from experience that most of the time those bins are emptied into the dumpster and sent to landfill. When people exclaim things like “but why do they throw this out? There’s nothing wrong with it!”, I just shrug.

I shrug because I’ve become very familiar with what gets thrown out, but also because I don’t see supermarkets throwing out edible food as a shock. These are institutions that exist to make a profit; so they throw out anything that, for whatever reason, is not useful to that end. But I also don’t see food waste as an anomaly in an otherwise perfectly rational society. Look around us. We are the experts of waste.

We knowingly destroy our natural environment; drive whole species to extinction. Churn through natural resources as fast as we can. We design products with inbuilt obsolescence; manufacture trends to keep everyone buying and throwing out more. Governments spend vast amounts of money making and buying deadly weapons but are too stingy to pay foreign aid that will keep people alive.

We waste people too – letting millions die of disease, hunger and war or languish in poverty and displacement. Who knows what those people could contribute to the world if allowed to live up to their potential. We treat the elderly and disabled as burdens rather than assets. We waste people’s talents by forcing them to spend their time doing what will make a profit rather than what their skills or the world’s true needs dictate. We take people who could be useful members of society and turn them into insurance salesmen, advertising executives, or journalists writing about royal births.

Living in this reality, why would anybody be surprised when a bit of food ends up in the trash? Yet media reports on dumpster diving often treat it as a novelty. Which leads me to the other thing I want to emphasise: that the act of dumpster diving is not merely an ingenious way to save a bit of money on groceries removed from the rest of our lives and our broader society.

Dumpster diving, for some of us at least, is looking the society I’ve described above square in the eyes and rejecting it as the only way of doing things. And it’s seeing the seedling of a different way in the cracks of the present one. By exploiting the wastefulness of our world, we can start to develop new possibilities.

Living off the waste we find takes us out of the cycle of consumerism. We are no longer manipulated by the false seduction of advertising; no longer feel the need to define our identity by the products we buy. Once you find yourself regularly fishing through the rubbish, the status games of our society start to seem obsolete – time to give up pretending we are more rich and successful than our neighbours. We can take the burden of this expectation of our shoulders. My own life is proof that dumpstering can be part of a lifestyle that rejects the money-driven imperatives of paid work. That in turn frees up time to experiment with what ways to spend our time we really find useful and meaningful.

It changes how we think about food too. Once you realise you can get virtually unlimited food for free it becomes a resource to share rather than to hoard. When you run into someone else at the bin, food is always shared out freely. You can give away food, throw extravagant dinner parties. Facebook pages are set up where people offer up to strangers excess food they have found. Every week me and my friends plonk a table of food down on the street and sit down to eat with whoever comes along. My hope is that impacts everyone we meet there and they take a little bit of that spirit away with them.

Dumpstering breeds a resourcefulness and creativity that we take into other parts of our life. It teaches us that just because something has been deemed worthless by our system does not mean it is. Constantly being confronted with our excess reminds us that “food insecurity” is a myth – there is enough for everybody if we share resources around equally.

Wise people have told us for centuries that we live in an interconnected ecosystem where the waste of one species is vital to the survival of another; that the decomposing remnants of one meal are the nutrients that enable the growth of the next. The dumpsters of the 21st century hold their own lessons about the possibilities of new life if we are willing to dive in and seek them out.

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Cleaning my room with Jordan Peterson and Tom Waits

At some point last year I was surfing the web (does anyone actually still say that?), streaming music. In the process I found myself listening to Tom Waits’ hobo classic Cold Water. I briefly scrolled down to see the comments on the video and discovered, much to my surprise, a number of people saying they had been brought to this particular song by Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Like I have been with everything that’s ever emerged on the internet, I have to confess I was a bit slow on the uptake with Jordan Peterson. In fact, it’s only this week that I have for the first time read anything written by him or watched any of his videos. When I first saw those quotes on that Tom Waits song, I knew vaguely who Jordan Peterson was but found the references to “room-cleaning rock” etc a bit cryptic. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that one of Dr Peterson’s messages was that people should clean their bedrooms.

I can now say I’m a bit more familiar with his work. There also happens to now be a bit more of his work. Not only has his popularity exploded on the internet and in his speaking tours (to the point where he is regularly described as “the world’s most influential public intellectual”), but he has also this year published his first book since he rocketed to viral internet fame.

That book is 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos – like a self-help book with a few more references to Carl Jung than the genre usually provides. I haven’t read it, but the chapter headings mostly look like pretty sound, if unremarkable, life advice. I can also agree with his emphasis on taking personal responsibility (mostly for your own life, which is what his motif of “clean your room” refers to, although he does also talk about trying to impact the world around us).

Some of his theories are a bit more strange or worrying – the often-quoted examples being his bizarre thesis that he can’t deal with disagreements with women because if it came down to it he could never hit them; and his promise (since withdrawn) to, like a 21st century Joseph McCarthy, build a database of humanities courses full of “cultural Marxism” to warn people off them and eventually close them down. (So much for rule 9 “assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t”).

I’m not going to do an in-depth critique of Dr Peterson’s ideas, and wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted given I’ve hardly read them. My cursory scan doesn’t show much of the overt misogyny, transphobia or xenophobia he is often accused of. There is admittedly plenty to dislike about the values of many of his biggest fans (who are strangely keen on labelling his fairly mild monologues “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS LEFTISTS” etc). He certainly does fit the mould of a “culture warrior” given his combative way of approaching ideas other than his own (it’s strange given his extensive analysis of the psychology of beliefs to then hear him talk about “post-modernists” or “cultural Marxists” as if they are one homogenous conspiracy). But if it comes to the battleground of culture wars, I would say if ideas can’t stand up to the critique of someone like Jordan Peterson they probably won’t convince many people outside of the believers anyway.

The thing about his output though, is for all its vast quantity (when I googled his “12 rules” the first video that came up was a three hour lecture!), I just don’t think there are many new ideas there. I mean, clean your room? That is the exact advice your mum gave you your whole life. Using bible quotes, traditional social values and psychology 101 to give a motivational speech? That happens in literally thousands of churches around the world every Sunday. A bit more uncommon are the quotes from Nietszche and Jung, but they are just that – quotes.

You could say it’s symptomatic of our current media landscape, where youtube videos and not books are the dominant medium of ideas, that someone like Jordan Peterson can be called a prophet. But then again, he is hardly the first person to sell millions of books by offering people a dozen steps to transform their life.

Once you’ve watched a few of his videos and your “recommended” feed fills up with his work, you realise how many of his popular videos have titles like “how to attract women” or “what women want”. You realise then that maybe it’s not actually 21st century interpretations of Carl Jung and the bible; not even critiques of post-modernism and identity politics; that people are flocking to him for.

But what I think is a shame, the thing that irked me about all those people proudly proclaiming how Jordan Peterson sent them to Tom Waits’ video, is that Jordan Peterson’s “bear your suffering, sort yourself out bucko” cheerleading is kind of cheating people. It’s that image of all those people cleaning their room while listening to Tom Waits sing about the joys of not having a bedroom.

As well as liking Tom Waits, me and Dr Peterson also have a mutual appreciation of that other famous hobo – Jesus. But what does the professor like about Jesus? Is it his radical inclusion of the outcasts (the disabled, prostitutes, tax collectors)? Or his anarchistic philosophy of social organising (“you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven… The greatest among you will be your servant.”) Or his habit of sticking it to the powers that be in his society (both Roman kings and Jewish religious leaders)?

Well it doesn’t seem to be any of those. He likes Jesus as someone who manfully carried the cross of his suffering, but a big part of it seems to be that he likes Christianity as the cultural foundation of modern western civilisation. There is some validity in that view, but by seeing Christianity as a foundation pillar of the status quo, he’s missed out on the best bits. As well as – importantly – the whole thing that got Jesus killed in the first place.

When he sums up his theories in pithy little points about dressing up in a suit for your self-confidence, or accepting traditional social and gender roles, or becoming more productive and successful workers; Peterson is actually insulting Jesus, Tom Waits, and most of the great thinkers he is so fond of quoting – most of whom had to directly challenge the social norms of their time and place to find meaning in their own lives and to contribute something unique and significant to the world.

Jordan Peterson likes to tell his listeners to do something heroic, to make the world better. In hoping for that I can again find some common ground with him, except I think his manual left out Step 13 – imagine a future for yourself and the world around us that is different – better – than the one we live in now. Dedicate yourself to living for that world, even when it means being out of step, or actively working against, some of the values we have inherited from our past.

Dr Peterson is right – we do live in a world that is tragic and unjust. But in a society riddled with exploitation, greed, xenophobia, social and environmental destruction; lives of meaning and heroism can surely mean more than just clean bedrooms.

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Review of Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum

Few christian saints can match the popularity amongst non-believers of Teresa of Avila. Teresa lived a varied and eventful life, but the aspect which enamours her particularly to the world of artists, and that which inspires this exhibition entitled Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum; are her mystical visions of encounters with Jesus or angels.

Most famous is the excerpt from her autobiography of her vision of an angel: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The sexual connotations of the passage are especially drawn out by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque masterpiece The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Built in the middle of the 17th century in Rome’s church of Santa Maria della Vittoria; the sculpture depicts Teresa lying on her back moaning, the angel standing over her with phallic-like spear in hand. The couple are surrounded by beams of golden light.

In many ways it is this sculpture that has built the legend of Teresa of Avila. In the intervening centuries she has come to represent the expression of feminine sexuality in a time of repressive sexual mores; of a sensual christianity that rejects the ascetic dualism of the religion.

This is well demonstrated in Audrey Flack’s depiction here of Teresa’s moaning face with a stick of lipstick, the angel with a frosted cupcake. Flack describes Teresa as the antithesis of a middle aged de-sexualized nun, but rather a beautiful vibrant young woman in the throes of intense passionate feelings … That she is a young woman allowing herself to display her sexuality (albeit religious sexuality) is courageous, unique and historically important.”

I’m not sure what Teresa herself would think of this. She was, after all, a nun who took a vow of chastity and devoted herself to lengthy sessions of prayer. As a young Carmelite sister, she was disenchanted with the way her fellow nuns gossiped and socialised with the local (male) gentry. So she founded her own monastery where strict routines of prayer, absolute poverty and vegetarianism were enforced. Her nuns became known as the discalced (shoeless) sisters.

The Teresa who inspires this art exhibition is the sensual orgasmic maiden of Bernini’s sculpture and post-modern mythology rather than the pious nun of Teresa’s actual life and writings. Which is fine, but gives an interesting subtext to the rest of the exhibition.

For one, Teresa’s decision to reject nobility for a life of voluntary poverty is the exact opposite of the scenes of Bacchanalian excess portrayed in works by Pietro Aquila and Girolamo Nerli. It doesn’t have that much in common either with other works in various shades of sexual innuendo that adorn the gallery walls.

Most explicit of these is Salvador Dali’s montage of female faces in orgasmic moans. While the definition of Ecstasy we are given as we walk into the exhibition is one of “self-transcendence”, the depiction of ecstasy here is on very much embodied rather than out of body – the carnal joys of copulation. No question that such desires have inspired much great art over the years, but what relation does it really bear to St Teresa’s ecstatic mystical visions?

Elsewhere in the exhibition the themes stretch further afar. David Wadelton’s sublime Show Them You Want It takes a picture of a couple of AFL stars, and with no more than a change of perspective recasts them gazing heavenwards. Brilliant work of art though it is, it marks a further digression from the transcendence of the divine. Here ecstasy is found in the spectacle of the football.

Chris Bennie’s Mothership, meanwhile, is a video of the artist dancing on his own to trance music, seemingly in his mum’s loungeroom. Bennie says the artwork is about the sublime possibilities of the mundane rather than the mysticalBut in its depiction of rapturous dancing to bad electronic music, it brought to mind the most common use of the exhibition’s title these days. In the 21st century, “ecstasy” is just another product you buy – a little white pill to provide instant transcendence. In Bennie’s video, he dances more and more wildly while his surroundings stay exactly the same. Ecstasy is an ephemeral moment of pleasure preceding the inevitable comedown.

In contrast to these come the artworks most closely aligned with the philosophy of Teresa of Avila – engravings by Claude Mellon depicting St Francis of Paola and St Ignatius of Loyola, and Gordon Stephenson’s oil painting of St Stephen; each experiencing ecstatic religious visions.

Francis and Ignatius both founded religious orders, dedicating their lives to poverty and charity. Stephen meanwhile is famous as the first christian martyr – a man who stood on the witness stand facing the death penalty for blasphemy and proclaimed he saw Jesus at the right hand side of God.

In more ways than one these staid old guys don’t fit in with the rest of the artworks. They are certainly a bit more restrained than the scenes of excess around them, but more than that, these pictures show the kind of transcendent experiences that fundamentally change your outlook on the world. The kind of ecstasy you would die, or give up everything you once thought valuable, for. A quest that doesn’t seek ecstasy as a momentary release from our circumstances, but rather attempts to transform the world around us into a more permanent state of joy.

One of the highlights, as he is in any exhibition, is William Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. As ever, it is a hideously dystopian vision of Georgian England. It’s set in a church of religious tricksters – the faith of the people exploited by church leaders motivated by power and lust. The miserable parishioners seeking something to believe in are offered puppets of witches and devils, a clergyman molesting a young girl, and a thermometer of emotions that runs from “suicide” to “raving”. It is of course a critique of the 18th century church, but in the context of the exhibition you can also see in it the marketplace of shoddy salesmen offering the promises of various experiences to liberate us from our daily horrors.

Teresa of Avila’s mystical experiences were the result of and the catalyst for a life of extraordinary resistance to the powers and cultural norms of her society. She rejected the norms of her family, social caste, gender and religious institutions; and faced persecution at every turn. Yet she did it all joyfully out of a powerful belief in something greater. Anyone trying to use her as an exploration of what it means to “transcend the self” would do well to remember that.

ps. The exhibition is over now, but you can view the artworks and read artist statements in the exhibition handbook published digitally here.

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