What Comes After Dopey?

People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art. Instead, artists and storytellers have tended to use various disabilities to convey strangely unfair stereotypes about physical challenges. Dwarfism is the obvious one, it continues to be seen by some people as the funny disability.  People with the genetic condition not only look different but they they also walk differently and move differently. And for whatever cruel reasons it's that difference that makes some people laugh. The cheap gag that keeps on giving. 

But this has not always been so, perhaps. The first dwarf to be depicted in art was Seneb, a real person who served as a high-ranking court official in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, around 2520 BC. A painted limestone sculpture of him and with his family was rediscovered in 1926 and now resides in the museum at Cairo.  Irregardless of his body Seneb was a person of considerable power, wealth, and religious title. This and other texts indicate that Egyptian society advocated the acceptance and integration of those with physical and mental disabilities.

Fast forward to 20th Century Western culture and the most famous depiction of dwarfism comes from Walt Disney.  In the first full length animated motion picture Snow White and Seven Dwarfs the dwarfs are mostly comic entertainment, each named after their personality type - Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.  The other big depiction from that period came from JRR Tolkien. Dwarfs, or as he called them 'dwarves' are even more so mythical creatures, completely apart from humans, like orcs, elves, and hobbits. Both these depictions have their roots in German folklore.

In 2017 the most successful story in the world is the A Song of Ice and Fire series created by George RR Martin and adapted for television as Game of Thrones by David Benioff and DB Weiss at HBO. The books themselves are sold in the fantasy section but the reason why they've sold so well is, in part, because Martin subverts the genre. Martin writes about dragons, and magic, and also about dwarfs. But George RR Martin's dwarfs are not merely human shaped entities dwelling inside mountains smithing away and hoarding gold. Martin's dwarfs are humans with the physical disability called dwarfism. Tyrion Lannister is a member of the wealthiest and most powerful family in Westeros (not dissimilar to Egypt's Seneb).  Martin's gets meta in A Storm of Swords, addressing the usual tropes about dwarfs in entertainment. At his own wedding King Joffrey introduce a mock play. All the players are dwarfs. Joffrey mockingly tries to coerce his uncle Tyrion into joining them. Tyrion carefully evades this demand, but at the same time insults Joffrey, which draws more genuine laughter from from the crowd.

The task of art is to uncover things that are not payed attention to and to then provoke responses that are outside of everyday experiences. Historically art has been exceptionally mean to people with dwarfism, categorising their genetic condition into something as both mythological and comical.  The A Song of Ice and Fire saga is one of the finest efforts in art to re-humanise a part of society that has previously been so successfully ridiculed by the same genre. This coupled with Peter Dinklage's screen portrayal of Tyrion has successfully shifted the way that millions of people think, at least superficially, about people who just happen to be dwarfs. 

Tyrion is not a fantasy dwarf, he's a regular person with dwarfism inside a fantasy story. He suffers the same way many people facing physical challenges do. He is referred to by others as the 'imp' or the 'halfman'. Because of his body he is seen by everyone, including his own father, as being less than everyone else. Martin conceived the character as being both the most ugly person in the story but also the most intelligent. And in that way there is the deepest tragedy. Because, through his smartness, he is acutely aware of how others see him and why they dislike him and how no matter what he does he'll still be just a dwarf to them. But not to the reader of the novels nor to the TV viewers. Those people see him for his mind and his actions. And to them he is a heroic figure in the most human sense.

 Egyptian civilization, Old Kingdom, Dynasty XXI. Statue of dwarf Seneb with his wife Sentiotes and children, from Giza.

Egyptian civilization, Old Kingdom, Dynasty XXI. Statue of dwarf Seneb with his wife Sentiotes and children, from Giza.

Jester Bears the Crown

Donald Trump isn't dumb. He's just not your idea of what a smart person is. Wanting to win in 2016 he implied very heavily that he could make working Americans more like him, that is luxuriously wealthy. But he abandoned that tacit mission statement the moment he was inaugurated. President Trump's first year has seen a style of corruption usually reserved for Third World Africa. The most generous way of describing the 45th's behaviour is that it's not actually malicious, it's just clan based thinking. The $1.5 trillion Trump tax cut is a victory for the widely discredited theory of trickle-down economics. It's also a win for Trump personally. He should save $15 million annually. Son-in-Law Jared Kushner will save $12 million a year. Should the President die his children could save as much as $1 billion due to the adjustments inheritance code. If Trump believed in science he could donate his body to it. Those doing the autopsy would find that his once beating heart sounded like a cash register.

Donny still isn't a politician, he's a performer. Even his signature is performative. He uses the biggest pen available and then turns the paper around to show the camera what he's done. Whenever in public he is 'on'.  He's always in costume. He’s transferred US politics into pantomime, transgressing the norms of the executive branch. The Democrats still can’t get their head around him. Which is a problem because you can’t defeat what you don’t understand. Beyond praying that Trump somehow gets impeached they’d given up. That was until the Golden Globe awards. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Oprah Winfrey was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille trophy for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. She took the opportunity to entertain the emotions of the crowd, giving a rousing speech. So well performed that within ten minutes of it going to air the Internet reviewed that she must be running for President in 2020. Her political resume is scant but meaningful. From 2006 to 2008, Oprah's endorsement of Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the super close 2008 Democratic primary race. She's not run for office before, nothing at all. Same as Trump though. Maybe Oprah could win. The left say that want serious progressive change. But maybe all they want is someone more agreeable back in the news cycle.

Oprah's antidote preaches the need to reform the individual in order to better fit in with rotten conditions of contemporary Western life. The power of positive affirmations will allow you to survives against the larger forces acting upon you. Collective action is dead, the individual is all there is. She's the exact opposite of what politics is meant to be about. In her world there is nothing bigger to give yourself up to for the greater good, so all you can do is concentrate on you 'living your truth'. Oprah is clever and warm and charming and soulful. But she's also been a baleful influence on millions, demonstrably so. She heavily promoted self-help bunkum like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret as well as profited off fraudulent quackery like Doctor Oz. 

Oprah is more like Trump than anyone else alive. Trump himself understood this intuitively in 1999 when he told Larry King that she would be his ideal running mate. Each have made fortunes, by doing whatever it takes, to create personality cults around themselves for business purposes. Trump puts his name on buildings, Oprah puts hers on a TV network and her face on the cover of every single issue of O Magazine. His brand promises wealth and winning, her brand promises self improvement and spirituality. There is an idea of a Trump or and Oprah, some kind of abstraction. Neither of them are politicians but celebrity culture has now reached a point were it permeates every aspect of contemporary Western culture. Democracies function best when they elect fair representation of the population at large. Celebrities are by definition anti-representive. Trump and Oprah aren't reflections of communities. They are self-created icons of aspiration, holograms - dazzling but intangible - projected into the luminiferous aether. 

Recent history has seen the US electorate radically overcorrect from what they just had and get kind of the opposite of what they just had. The gloom of Nixon was replaced by the sunniness of Carter, when Jimmy's Samaritan thing wore thin they went with Reagan, after him and old man Bush got long in the tooth they went for saxophonist Bill, who was replaced with cowboy George W, and the opposite of him was smart cool Obama, and the reaction to him was Donald. If that pattern holds true then the next President should be a boring technocrat. If that pattern hold then Oprah is out. But maybe all bets are off. Perhaps Trump's presidency is a rapture that will begin a new era, in which thrones belong to jesters. 


Turnbull's Inflatable Fiduciary Democracy

Spending money to win votes is part of the democratic process, demonstrably so. Which is why it makes sense that the 29th Prime Minister of Australia should be on the BRW 200 Rich List. When he wrestled leadership from Tony Abbott in September 2015 the polls suggested a landslide win was coming his way. But he had to wait and as each month rolled by his favourability diminished. When an election was finally announced for July 2016 things got even worse. Bill Shorten, a man who Turnbull doesn't really rate, was about to make a loser out of him. That could not happen. So he reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a rabbit. Abracadabra and they won - if only just. Magic Turnbull had sprinkled $1.75M of donation glitter dust on the party to secure The Lodge. But like all magician's tricks this was just another dazzling illusion. A victory from the electorate had been achieved but Turnbull had done so without creating any real authority for himself. Because political capital can only be earned by persuading the public with your big ideas. He simply had no overarching narrative to begin with.

During the 2013 election cycle the LNP strongly criticised Clive Palmer for buying PUP seats. Who the hell did this dove pie munching tycoon think he was? Yet it worked. He got up and so did two other candidates he bankrolled. Yet it did not really work. The party of three swiftly collapsed midterm with none of them seeking a seat in 2016 under the PUP banner. Turnbull himself has a prior history of self-donation, back in 1999 he coughed up $3M as part of the Yes case to make Australia a Republic. That investment did not pay off but he came to appreciate how cash can buy votes through the medium of marketing. Win or lose it all feels crook. In a fair democracy one person equals one vote. But the notion is corrupted when one person can use their personal treasure to unevenly alter the outcome. The curdling experienced right now churns in the guts extra hard as the PM himself has more gold than Coolangatta. A democracy ceases to be a competition of ideas when one person can simply buy a taller platform and purchase a louder megaphone. In the US Donald Trump became President by spending a lot his own money. He would not have won without that plane of his. Perhaps Michael Bloomberg should have run, he’s even wealthier. In the UK they have stricter rules on spending and their current PM Teresa May has a more modest net worth. If the system allows large sums to be spent, quickly enough spending large amounts becomes compulsory. And in turn the people who do get elected will, by necessity, be the wealthier types. The net result can only be an unrepresentative government. 

Having the Aussie PM spend $1.75M to push his own party over the line feels like cheating. And cheating winners are really just pimped out losers. On a subconscious level that is why it feels like he is not actually PM at all. He's more like a random no-name minister that you've seen on the tele a few times saying something unremarkable. The member for Wentworth performs the self-deprecating grins of a pleasant old man twisting on his heels as he stands beside the fireplace spinning yarns. But his stories go nowhere. He doesn't have the capital to say anything meaningful to anyone anywhere about anything at all. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was meant to be someone for whom the nation would erect posthumous statues to. But he ain’t. Instead he's twirling in an eddy, hollowed out with entropy, too exhausted to paddle further. If he died today he'd be lucky, lucky if we put up a wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing fluorescent tube man.

Subversive Charm of Classic Sesame Street

Jim Henson was a towering pillar of American popular culture and the pinnacle of his output was Sesame Street. After his death in 1990 the show slowly became less and less alive. After the show debuted in 1969 it had 21 years with him and has since had 27 years without. And the division between the two periods is clear. The franchise now makes more money than ever before but in doing so it's been reduced to a slick overly moderated safe space. It's what can happen to the band when the lead singer/songwriter dies. The classic muppet monsters on the show were interesting because they tended to have the same kind of big problems and character flaws that one might associate with grown adult humans. Snuffy was sort of depressed. Oscar was very angry all the time. Tele had crippling nervousness. Ernie bullied Bert all day but because he was so funny he got away with it. Big Bird was an orphan relying on the kindness of strangers. Grover was a pathetic lunatic. Count von Count was this sort of eccentric European freak. And Cookie Monster had an eating disorder, obviously. All of these classic characters are still on the program but they've been adjusted downwards, the edges have been polished away. It probably began with the massive success of Elmo. He joined the show before Jim Henson's death and afterwards went on to produce millions and millions of dollars in merchandising revenue for the production company. The newer characters such as Abby Cadabby, Zoe, and Rosita are really just newer variations of Elmo. They're all highly functional wunderkinds designed to charm the viewer rather then inspire pathos. The classic version of the show was so revolutionary that it took almost 30 years for other children's programs to catch up. But at some point during the later half of the now nearly 4,500 episodes Sesame Street began to feel a lot like all the other things made for kids on TV. And it was not just that the new programs caught up, Sesame Street also slowed down. With Jim Henson gone the characters stopped sprinting and began jogging, losing much of the humour. The undeniably reality is that Sesame Street used to be every kid's favourite show but today it's just another one of the things that parents use to babysit their offspring. 


George Jetson Welfare Recipient

George Jetson lived in a mansion that floated in the sky.  He had a hot wife, two cool kids, a loveable dog, and a robot housekeeper. He drove a flying car across Orbit City to an office job at Spacely Space Sprockets where his workweek was typical of the era: one hour a day, two days a week. In 1962 when The Jetsons premiered the cartoon envisaged the 21st Century as a time when scientific advancements had made the economy so efficient that one bloke working a 2 hour work week could support a family and own most things.

In the real future (right now) efficient technologies have changed everything. But in unplanned ways. The US lost 5.6m manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010 and according to a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research, 85 per cent of those jobs losses can be attributable to technological changes in automation. The Boston Consulting Group has estimated that while a human welder earns $25 per hour the equivalent cost per hour for a robot is around $8. And the extra cost of maintaining a robotics system (installation, maintenance, and the operating cost) could be amortised in the first five years. Although there has been a steep decline in factory jobs, the manufacturing sector has become more productive and industrial output has been growing. In short, more stuff is being made by less people. The process is underway and irreversible. But unlike on The Jetsons people haven't started working less while getting paid the same. The efficiency dividends have instead been paid to companies rather than workers. The workers themselves have either started working not at all or all started working somewhere else.

In the future we might all be on the dole. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a form of social security in which all citizens of a country receive an unconditional sum of money from the government, in addition to any income received from elsewhere. Switzerland considered introducing a UBI of 2,500 Swiss francs (US$2,578) per month this year but voters rejected it. President Obama has addressed the notion, 'Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that's a debate that we'll be having over the next 10 or 20 years.'

Every fictitious future-world has been proven false so far. In hindsight The Jetsons can be understood as a reflection of the time it was made. Hanna-Barbera took the every day concerns of a post-war Californian nuclear family and projected them into the future, in the same was as The Flintstones was a fantastic take on the distant past. It's impossible to accurately imagine the future. Artists try to reflect present day while it's the engineers who create the future by actually building things. And the most famous engineer in the world right now is Elon Musk. The billionaire genius sees UBI as natural. 'There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation. Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.'

If The Jetsons had of been more correct it might of made George not go into work at all. His boss, Cosmo Spacely, was always in a bad mood and shouting anyhow. Instead George would stay at home playing with Astro collecting money from the government. It only makes sense that in a futuristic utopia no one need work at all.

  The Jetsons

Why are Tasmanians Poor People?

A Tasmanian person is 30% poorer than the national average. With the Australian GDP per capita at $68,000 the Tasmanian is just $49,000. Why?

Geography determines destiny.  And Tasmania is an isolated island at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, containing three towns of note in the north and a small city, serving as the capital, in the south. By the time transportation was abolished 150 years ago 75,000 convicts had been sent to the island. Today the population is just 500,000. In the same period the population of Australia as a whole has ballooned from 1.5 million to 22 million. Had the same rate of increase occurred in Tasmania, in excess of 1 million people would be living in the state now. Twice as large. When migrants come (by choice rather than in chains) to Australia they gravitate towards big economic zones to find work. At the same time educated young people who grow up in Tasmania leave for Melbourne or Sydney to pursue a variety of interesting careers. It's been an acute problem for 50 years, at one point in the 90s the population was going backwards. 

Culture can trump demographics though. Even if the population remains stagnant, as is projected, Tasmania could become significantly wealthier. But it would require leadership and huge cultural change. Many Tasmanians maintain an inward looking xenophobic approach to new ideas. And any criticism from outsiders is meet with an automated defensiveness. Premier Will Hodgman is the son of late politician Michael Hodgman. And Minister for State Growth Matthew Groom is the son of former Premier Ray Groom. There's a sense that these blokes didn't force there way into office with new ideas but rather inherited the family farm. Perhaps there is no appetite for big change. Certainly there are no leaders prepared to burn political capital to radically adjust the state's trajectory. If a charismatic leader were to emerge with a believable message describing how they would Make Tasmania Great Again then the soil might be fertile. Their constituents probably wouldn't come from the Denison Division though. 

At the moment the elite middle class in Hobart like things pretty much they way they are. They live in nice large houses with wonderful views, their children go to one of four private schools, they shop at Hill Street, dine in Salamanca, and take overseas holidays regularly. The kind of people who never went north of Creek Road until MONA opened. But most people in Hobart aren't middle class. They're working class, except a lot of them aren't working. And if you live in the northern suburbs or the pre-tertiary areas of the eastern shore you have to worry about burglary, violence, addiction, and burnouts.

The Hobart elite brag about MONA and the MONA-effect. That's been a big change they say. David Walsh’s cosmopolitan injection of private citizen ambition got the capital humming. There are now better restaurants, more microbreweries, and new hotels being erected. The culture has changed a bit but most people in Tasmania are still where they were ten years ago, looking at a sunless horizon. The attendees at this year’s awesome DARK MOFO were mostly tourists from Melbourne or Sydney as well as citizens from the elite suburbs. It was a no-povo zone. Indeed MONA's flagship beer MOO BREW states on the cup that it is, 'Not suitable for bogans.' 

There is no secret sauce to success. But looking outwards to more successful corners of the globe could be wise. Since Singapore was expelled from Malaysia 50 years ago it has been able to push it's GDP per capita of $2,600 up to $55,000. Singapore's phenomenal growth is the result of a guiding philosophy that a welcoming approach to business should be the basis for everything. Tasmania could emulate as closely as possible their methods, as outlined in the Home for Business Strategy. The Singaporean strategy encompasses every industry, placing as much emphasis on consumer goods, manufacturing, chemicals, and energy as it does on tourism or digital media. They take great pains to make it easy for multinationals to move operations there. Singapore has benefited big time from its geographic location close to China. Tasmanian could better position itself logistically. Chinese people like to eat the produce farmed on the island. Tasmania may not be as close to China as Singapore but Hobart to Shanghai is still just 12 hours flight. Close enough to get commercial flora and fauna products there in a timely manner. 

Tasmania needs to mind flip. Even if the less privileged could imagine a better future they would not feel entitled to demand it. And the middle class elite are comfortable sitting on their hands. While Tasmania is a very nice place it is not a very rich one. Perhaps all this is tolerable. But if so people will need to also accept why people on the ‘Mainland’ look down on ‘Tassie’. They do so because the people who live on island are poor.

Trump the Imaginative Genius

You could tell by the low-key stage that Trump didn’t completely expect to win.  The victory speech was meant be on the shiny blue map of America stage. Instead Clinton was probably too shocked to go out there and say anything at all. It’s really only shocking though because for the last 18 months the media has been saying he'll lose and the polls have been agreeing with that narrative. Wrong.

Trump did not win by a lot.  But he definitely won. And he got the Congress and the Senate too. So it's a massive victory, obviously.  You always had to wonder if the polls were wrong. Trump is an outlier and outliers cause modelling to break down.  His victory has embarrassed the pundits. They had no idea what they were talking about all along.  And we have no reason to think they do now. Without endorsing Trump’s actual political views it important to acknowledge the art of the victory. He had the imagination to cut through the noise and send his own signal. Despite being one of the wealthiest people in America, living in a huge apartment atop a building on Fifth Avenue with his name written on it, surrounded by luxury and security and healthcare and fine food, he had imagination. He had the thoughtfulness to understand that most Americans have none of the things he enjoys. He then took this appreciation and went out into the swing states and said to the people, I am rich and you are poor but if you come with me you can be like me, trust me, it’s gonna be huge.

When Bush got re-elected I had a phone conversation with my old man where I basically said I couldn't believe that they'd re-elected him.  His response was that I didn't understand America. I knew about their fantastic popular culture but I didn't appreciate how most of Americans are forced to live. I've since been to the US three times for a total of ten weeks and most of that was spent driving cross country.  Once you get past the Elysian Fields of California and New York City the interior is filled with poorer people, run down infrastructure, homeless war veterans with PTSD begging for change under bridges, addicts, abandoned factories and dusty townships. Maybe it's not all that bad but it ain't great.  

Trump won the primary by picking apart sixteen, mostly seasoned, politicians.  If he could devastate Jeb then so too Hillary, they were both the establishment.  Without the GOP superiors actively working against him he ran a highly original line and all with less than half Clinton's money.  He now has the gold medal.  Not seeing Clinton give a concession speech when she knew she’d lost really felt like evidence that there truly is no room on the podium for second place. Right now the rest of the world looks at the US with confusion and derision.  But maybe the Yanks don't care what the rest of the world thinks.  A few of them at least are like Trump.  They only care about who they view reflected in the glass.  And right now Trump looks in the mirror and he sees a massive winner. But will it last?  Hard to imagine so.  Even Steph Curry can only hit so many three pointers in a row.  America is a nation of complicated unpredictable tectonic shifts that can only be understood in hindsight. This is just another rapture. There will be more.