August 2012 on this blog

My template has been remarkably stable lately, but as you can see I am trying WordPress’s newest now. It is meant to be more readable and cleaner than the last one, pretty as that was.

It has been a good month for this blog, already 1,000 more hits than July, according to WordPress. The photo blog has really kicked on too, averaging 53 hits a day in August compared with the year average over the past three years of 34.

Most visited on this blog

  1. Home page / Archives 1,567 views in August 2012
  2. Sniffing out the swamp then looking up…. 839
  3. A very personal Australia Day 26 January – my family 106
  4. Being Australian 16: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 9 – my tribes 80
  5. The Rainbow Warrior 79
  6. Nostalgia and the globalising world — from Thomas Hardy to 2010 61
  7. On Bruce Dawe keeping on, and other miscellanea 52
  8. Aboriginal History and some recent art 48
  9. Niggling example of political short-sightedness: Maldon-Dombarton rail link 48
  10. About 40
  11. Defending The Shire: the place, not the trash TV… 36
  12. Being Australian 11: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 4 35
  13. This may well be the best Australian history book I have EVER read! 33
  14. Wollongong local history 30
  15. Jack Vidgen–Australia’s Got Talent last night 30
  16. Being Australian 3: Richard Tognetti, Wollongong, multiculturalism 29
  17. Ghosts and other tales of Kiama and district 25
  18. Best documentary on climate change so far… 22
  19. Trams down Cleveland Street via Memory Lane 22
  20. Facebook’s big shrink– Google Chrome vs Firefox – FB/Chrome fail! 22
  21. Floods: the current Australian situation in maps 21
  22. Leaky Boat: the documentary 20
  23. Election 2010 next Saturday 20
  24. Being Australian 20
  25. Family history and mystery–the Indigenous connection 19

And on the photo blog

  1. Home page / Archives 662
  2. Old haunt derelict now 40
  3. Shellharbour 2 – Beverley Whitfield Pool 30
  4. Old Illawarra: mystery scans from my family archives 30
  5. On Riley Street – summer Sunday 19
  6. Paddy’s Market to Ultimo 2 – the markets 19
  7. 2012 15
  8. More best of 2008: 44 — “pencil sketch” 12
  9. Views from East Redfern 1: you can see the Blue Mountains  12
  10. Crown Street Mall busker 11

Once in a blue moon

I was awake for some reason in the wee hours this morning. From The Bates Motel window I saw…



See Once in a blue moon. But it’s tomorrow you get to see the “blue” moon…

… but don’t let the name mislead you – the moon won’t be shining blue.

The lunar event, a blue moon, occurs when two full moons are squeezed into a calendar month.

Astrophysicist Dr Stephen Hughes says the quirk in our calendar means the event happens about seven times in 19 years, which is about once every two-and-a-half years….

I missed Episode 3 of Go Back to Where You Came From last night, because I was having a long chat and a wine or two with an Iranian neighbour. But I can see remaining encore episodes on SBS TWO – Friday and Saturday at 9:30pm.

Have you tried the quiz?

The email from Quitnet and further framing thoughts on GBTWYCF2 on SBS

First the email from Quitnet:

Hello Neil Whitfield!

Your Quit Date is: Monday, February 28, 2011 at 12:00:00 AM
Time Smoke-Free: 548 days, 20 hours, 1 minute and 20 seconds
Cigarettes NOT smoked: 27442
Lifetime Saved: 6 months, 29 days, 15 hours
Money Saved: $17,536.00

I did celebrate at the appropriate time on Facebook and Quitnet.

Meanwhile Go Back To Where You Came From hasn’t just been playing to the choir after all.

The second series of SBS TV’s ground-breaking refugee documentary/reality series Go Back To Where You Came From drew a solid 752,000 viewers nationally last night.

The result slotted Go Back To Where You Came From into 10th place on the overnight [Tuesday] rankings…

To command such a large slice of the audience is a major win for SBS. Previously only shows such as the hit British motoring show Top Gear delivered similar audiences to SBS.

The first series, which was screened last year, was watched by 524,000 viewers on its first night and ranked 23rd for the night. It then built to 569,000 and 600,000 for its second and third nights…

The second series features six celebrities: former government minister Peter Reith, comedian Catherine Deveney, singer Angry Anderson, former ombudsman Allan Asher, model Imogen Bailey and former "shock jock" broadcaster Michael Smith.

In last night’s first episode the group was split and sent to Kabul in Afghanistan and Mogadishu in Somalia.

The big result for SBS did particular damage to Ten, at least in perception terms. Go Back To Where You Came From out-rated every show on Ten last night.

In pure ratings terms such comparisons are not always sound – they’re a little like comparing apples and oranges – but it does serve to illustrate the particular ratings pressures on Ten at the moment.

Because of Go Back’s strong performance, SBS’s share was only a few percentage points behind Ten’s last night. That will no doubt set tongues wagging…

See also The danger is palpable in an inspired Go Back.

Peter Reith in Kabul: not a monster

Peter Reith appeared also in Leaky Boat last year. There he stayed in his sheltered workshop of memory and self-justification, but even then…

The information in this documentary is substantial and coherent. It is also very persuasive.

Fascinating to me – because it conformed with the serving sailors I spoke to around that time – was the honesty and clear sight of the military.

What the documentary added to the picture for the first time, as far as I know, were voices from the boat people themselves.



Made a nonsense of Reith and his scrap-book – though it was interesting to notice that the iron man does have twinges of conscience. Watch it again if you don’t believe me!

Full marks to Reith for participating in GBTWYCF, and he does have a point when he asks:  if the number of asylum seekers taken into Australia were raised to 40,000 or 50,000 what would his critics do about the 50,000-and-first arrival?  It isn’t a silly question. This and other questions also concern me. However:


We can do better than that – hardly a controversial statement in my opinion.

I would like to repeat a remark I made last night on Facebook though – a note to self as much as anything.

Go Back to Where You Came From part 2. Very thought-provoking and best given some hard thought not knee-jerk reactions of whatever kind. Glib self-righteousness is just too easy and I admit I have been known to indulge myself.

I think we rather miss the point if we just dwell on anything crass someone like Mike Smith may say. The personal dynamics of the participants have become extremely interesting and if GBTWYCF makes us all a bit more willing to listen and a bit more circumspect and a bit more aware of the complexity and sheer scale of the issue – and, as much on the left as on the right, a bit less parochial and myopic – it will have done everyone a favour. Friday’s debriefing and discussion will be well worth seeing.

You are well advised the boycott anything from this mob though: _SqAPPLogo_normal. Now there is something the country really does not need – ever! We have been down this road under other names before.

Relevant in its way is Anonymity powers the cudgels in hatesphere by Elizabeth Farrelly in today’s Herald.

Anyway, all hell broke loose. By breakfast, my humdrum little blog had 50 comments and a thousand hits. By day’s end, almost 4000.

I was called a pompous prat, a rude and viscious (sic) idiot, an incredibly stupid woman, a small sad person, a pompous git, an old commie bat, an absolute wanker, a poor little suffering Doctor princess pet, a moron, an imbecile, a pestiferous little idiot, a selfish fool, an arrogant conceited woman, an old tart, an old fart, a dolt, lord of the bicycle paths, a wowser, pathetic, despicable, weak, dishonest and a complete f—wit.

"That people can anonymously abuse someone in public is not freedom of expression," said author and essayist John Ralston Saul during a conversation last week with members of Sydney PEN. "It’s slander. It’s not taking responsibility for your views. It’s not citizenship."

His critique of cyberspace’s role in "the rise of secrecy as an acceptable way of grabbing power" resonated strongly with me, especially considering my experiences in the digital hatesphere.

There’s a bus you see round town that bears, in similar vein, a quote from Peter Cundall: "The greatest power that ordinary people have … is to tell the truth."

Both presume that "ordinary people" are oppressed by the secrecy of governments and corporations, which is no doubt true. But in the blogosphere the boot is on the other foot. There, it’s so-called "ordinary people" for whom secrecy becomes both mask and cudgel.

Which is not about immigration issues but about the way we conduct discussion.

See also How do we escape the hysteria that threatens to erode public debate? by Peter Beaumont.

…The internet, it was once claimed by theorists such as Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, was supposed to be democratising and empowering, giving a voice to those marginalised by the elite of opinion formers dominating the media and politics.

These days, even Shirky has moved to distance himself from that earlier utopian idealism, telling three years ago he feared that he, like others, had got it wrong and that public pressure via the internet, far from leading to "democratic legitimation", could be seen as "just another implementation layer for special interest groups".

All of which leads to an inevitable question – whether our new developing public discourse, largely mediated online, has made our conversation more open, democratic and accountable? Or, instead, more fragmented and poisonous?

Among the pessimists has been the US academic Cass Sunstein, who was early in proposing a more dystopian picture of how debate was being shaped online, noting a fundamental contradiction. "New technologies," Sunstein has suggested, "including the internet, make it easier for people to hear the opinions of like-minded but otherwise isolated others."

He noted that while the internet was efficient in bringing together virtual communities of interest, it also encouraged participants "to isolate themselves from competing views… [creating a] breeding ground for polarisation, potentially dangerous for both democracy and social peace"…

In that spirit I again commend Peter Reith:

So, would I do it again? No, but the real success of the series is the extent to which the audience is encouraged to better understand the issues and promote informed debate. I know that sounds pretty mundane, but it’s the stuff of a functional democratic society.

Not yet on Go Back 2012 on SBS

Except to say it is as riveting as promised or even more so. However, there are still two nights to go plus Friday’s roundup and review.

While this is something everyone – and not only Australians – should see, mostly it will, I fear, play to the choir. Let’s just say it probably wasn’t the most watched program last night at The Bates Motel…

Meanwhile The Bates Motel woke this morning to the smell of burning gum trees. Hazard reduction somewhere, no doubt, combined with lack of wind.



And why not see the pasta dish from Wollongong Hellenic Club with which I fortified myself for watching starving refugees.


The USA is a foreign country

I am now well into From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W W Norton 2010) by Canadian-born Darren Dochuk. I endorse this comment by Steve on Goodreads: “Well researched history like this is hard to come by. I can’t not praise this book too much or recommend it too highly.”


You can get some idea of the book from Dochuk’s 2011 Huffington Post piece Remembering Reagan: The Evangelical Model for Republican Success in 2012.

The curious story lives on in evangelical memory, though few outside American Christendom are familiar with even its faintest details. Considering the current state of politics, and the celebration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday on February 6, perhaps it deserves repeating.

On a fall day in 1970, California’s governor invited friends over to his Sacramento home. With Herbert Ellingwood, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, taking the lead, Pat and Shirley Boone, businessman George Otis, and pastor Harald Bredesen joined Ronald and Nancy Reagan in an afternoon of conversation and prayer. Much of the former revolved around the subject of prophecy; having just talked personally with Billy Graham about teachings in the Book of Revelation, Reagan wanted to hear how they related to events in the Middle East. After chatting for a while, he and Nancy joined hands with their guests for prayer. What came next stunned them all. During his supplication, Otis’s arm began to pulsate with an emotion he attributed to the Holy Spirit. Then, with his hand shaking (the same one holding Reagan’s hand), Otis prophesied that Reagan would someday be president. Sheepishly, Otis ended the prayer, leaving Reagan and friends speechless and eager to say good-bye. Otis was hardly sheepish some years later, however, when, he began telling others about what had happened that fall day. Released just in time for the 1980 presidential race, his much-publicized testimonial conveyed one basic message: born-again, Bible-believing voters needed to vote for Reagan, the only true born-again, Bible-believing candidate in the running.

Cut beneath the peculiarities of Otis’ prophetic utterance is a deep accord between evangelicals and Reagan that took root in California long before it blossomed on a national stage. This marriage was forged during Reagan’s run for governor in 1966. Reagan’s inspirational presence in Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign had already convinced evangelicals that he was their new hero, and in the months that followed they begged him with letters and prayers to seek office. Reagan seemed right to them, on so many levels. First of all, he had a spiritual narrative that rang true. In the months surrounding the 1966 election, the actor-turned-politician turned earnest as he described his recommitment to Christ. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he answered his adoring fans with heart-felt missives that spoke of his devotion to Christ and his determination to pray more. And Reagan met other standards of association as well, by surrounding himself with evangelical powerbrokers like Graham and Boone, businessmen like Otis and Ellingwood, and investing himself in his church, Bel Air Presbyterian, known for its dynamic pastor Donn Moomaw. Of course, Reagan also boasted a political narrative that resonated with California evangelicals too, particularly those who had moved west from Texas and Oklahoma in search of defense industry jobs (some 2.5 millions southerners had settled in California by 1970). In his public pronouncements against radicals and the Red Menace, campaign promises to get socialism and secularism out of schools and God back in, and switch from the Democratic Party to GOP in 1962, he spoke the language and walked the political steps familiar to these southern sojourners.

For his part, Reagan asked something of these devotees, and they came through…

On that a Presbyterian pastor comments:

This is the kind of analysis we need so badly, in order to understand the reactionary forces at work in our culture, forces determined to "save" us from "secular humanism" on the one hand, and from democracy on the other – because democracy allows too much freedom of thought. Though Reagan recognized this and used it to catapult himself into the White House, he tried to temper it. But these days, there is no tempering of anything in the GOP. It’s out for our blood.

I’ve just started reading your book, "From Bible Belt to Sun Belt" – having lived in OK for 12 years (I’m a Presbyterian pastor), I saw firsthand the power of the fundagelical message to shut down thought, instill anxiety and create "enemies." It’s an amazing thing to see … and infinitely sad.

More to read: Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Redux by Paul Harvey.

It’s a happy coincidence that I got my brand-spanking-new paperback copy of Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, on the very day that I learned that the book (which as a dissertation won the Allan Nevins Prize, and as a book previously won the AHA’s Dunning Prize — biggies, both) was just awarded the Ellis Hawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians. Some high honors indeed for the former volleyball star from the Great Plains of Socialist Canada.

The coincidence reminded me it’s a good time periodically to revisit some of our older blog classics, one of which was the interview we conducted last year with Darren and printed here. So, without further adieu, in honor of the book’s success and newly being made available for your course use in paperback, here is Part I of our interview from last year below; and from there you can click on the link for Part two here (or just follow the  link below). Congratulations again to Darren.

In that interview:

PH: You begin the book with one of the most famous tropes of American religious history — the errand in the wilderness — and use it to situate the plain folk from the South/Southwest that you are going to follow through the book. You write: "these white southern evangelicals envisioned themselves as pilgrims carrying out their own errand into the wilderness." Can you describe briefly how they saw that "errand," and more about what kind of world they hoped to create in that "wilderness"?

DD: While reading church newspapers like the California Southern Baptist and the Assemblies of God’s Informant I was struck by the way southern evangelicals approached their new home as if on a mission; pastors, editors, and denominational leaders all spoke of being on an “errand.” This isn’t uncommon among migrant groups, since uprooted-ness tends to encourage notions of exceptionalism, but I thought it was suggestive that southern evangelical migrants approached their move this way. Considering their impressive numbers, southern evangelicalism’s built-in entrepreneurialism, and the freedoms of Los Angeles’ hinterland, it seemed significant that southern evangelicals encountered their new home with a confidence that could affect change. Able to move from the small town south to self-contained suburbs, these sojourners didn’t feel the jarring effects of migration that we see in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which Old Testament motifs of banishment (“exodus” and “exile”) are stressed. This isn’t to discount Steinbeck, or historians like James Gregory, who rightly and beautifully describes the hardships southern migrants faced in California. Still, I think the errand motif is a helpful qualifier, because it stresses the empowerment southern evangelical migrants felt (and were told to feel) when resettling on the West Coast.

And to be honest, I also found it intriguing that these sojourners did what they set out to do—impose their will on their wilderness in order to awaken their people back home. Meant to give hope to an uprooted people, the “errand” motif (as exaggerated or skewed as it may have been) in fact became a blueprint of sorts that these sojourners followed to a tee. In the immediate, they used it as justification to carve out strong, independent churches, ministries, schools, and communities in which they could codify principles of individualism, local autonomy, laissez-faire economics, and family values. In the long-term, they used it to help fashion this amalgam of beliefs into a coherent political strategy—the GOP’s Sunbelt strategy—that would win the hearts and votes of the people they left behind in Oklahoma and Texas, and ultimately win them access to Washington’s halls of power. So, although a neat rhetorical device (another reason why I used it), the errand motif also points us to a real, lived experience that few historians have fully appreciated in the context of post-war religious and political change.

See also Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas from Temple University:

Dochuk reaches this conclusion having done his homework. He rightly centralizes high-profile players like Graham, Reagan, George Pepperdine, Pat Boone, and “Fighting Bob” Shuler. He draws on primary source materials from a variety of archival repositories. (Indeed, how many scholars of twentieth-century American evangelicalism can claim to have researched at both the Pat Boone Headquarters and the Strom Thurmond Center?) And, wisely, he chooses to anchor his narrative with the voices of “plain folk” evangelicals. Drawn from a catalog of self-collected oral histories and sprinkled effectively throughout the text, the voices of these relatively unknown figures illuminate the lived realities of evangelical politicization. This hybrid approach—fusing traditional political history with a modified version of the “lived religion” methodology popularized by a generation of religious scholars—elevates Dochuk’s book above other recent studies of the Religious Right…

Nevertheless, the book is not without flaws, the most obvious being the author’s failure to succinctly define his term “evangelical.” Given the elasticity of this appellation even within the scholarly literature, it deserves clear definition; Dochuk’s oversight in this regard, therefore, is a significant one. Although it becomes clear even within the book’s first 80 pages that Dochuk’s evangelicalism includes segments of fundamentalism and even some theologically distinctive conservative Protestant denominations like the Churches of Christ, the absence of a singular, declarative definition of the term at the study’s outset left this reviewer feeling unmoored during the early chapters.

This, however, is but one critique of an otherwise stellar monograph—a monograph with a provocative argument far more nuanced than this reviewer has replicated here. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt marks a major advance in the growing body of scholarship examining the roots of evangelical political activism.

The very traditionally conservative Acton Institute  commends the book in this review, putting its own gloss on it, however.

Dochuk splendidly tells the story of the great Westward migration and the tale of a region that was not just caught up in an evangelical wave, but founded an empire of churches, colleges, and religious friendly businesses that was widely influential in changing evangelicalism and American politics. These transplanted Southerners brought a new vibrancy and entrepreneurial spirit to the region that helped to transform California into the eighth largest economy in the world. If their opponents believed the unleashing of Southern evangelicalism would cause "damnation for their region," it will be interesting to see the reverse effect on a future Southern California that becomes more and more secularized and continues to impose regulations and shed jobs at an alarming rate.

Slightly perverse, that conclusion, but as Dochuk shows a splendid sense of irony in the course of his narrative, while at the same time allowing the voices he captures full and fair scope, I am sure he would cope with that spin on his thesis.

Finally, see Jesus and Jefferson by Mark A Noll in The New Republic.

The great strength of Darren Dochuk’s book lies in his discovery of New Christian Right origins in postwar California. He skillfully traces a continuous narrative stretching from the Dust Bowl to Ronald Reagan, and demonstrates with prodigious research how this narrative fits into a much broader American canvas of demographic, political, economic, and ideological change. If there is a weakness in his book, it is that he does not document with similar care the moves that in the mid-1970s made California’s story a national story. But about the rest his book is utterly convincing.

The story begins with massive migrations in the 1930s of Okies, Arkies, and their Depression-driven fellow-sufferers who streamed out of the Southwest to California. In 1920, the population of Oklahoma and Arkansas was larger than the population of California by about 400,000 souls. In 1950, California’s 10.6 million dwarfed the 4.2 million left in those two states. The magnet for this great internal migration was jobs. Some jobs were waiting for Dust Bowl migrants when they arrived in the 1930s. Many more flowed from the economic cornucopia created by World War II, the surge of oil and gas industries, and a massive infusion of defense contracts. To an unusual degree, workers from the Southwest and South filled the demand for labor. In turn, well-compensated workers settled, raised families, built schools and churches, entered local politics, and otherwise made themselves at home…

The transplanted ideology that took root in California at the very time when that state became the forerunner of postwar national prosperity embodied a potent synthesis: theology stressing individual redemption, church culture emphasizing local independence, and social instincts trained by segregation to resist outside interference from Yankee do-gooders and intrusive Big Government. As adherents of this ideology purchased homes, built businesses, sent their children to school, looked for recreational opportunities, and helped their entrepreneurial pastors build large churches and then mega-churches, the traits of their Southern plain-folk religion became the nutritive medium for political mobilization.

Already in the 1930s, early Southern immigrants patronized a California movement known as “Ham and Eggs” that advocated a scheme for income assistance related to Huey Long’s famous “Share the Wealth” in Louisiana. It drew most of its support from Southerners who looked upon relief as hands-off assistance to individuals. Supporters of Ham and Eggs were also mostly Democrats, but of the local Southern sort instead of the big-government Northern variety.

Immediately after World War II, a perfect storm of threatening initiatives stimulated extensive counter-measures. When, in 1946, the CIO backed Proposition 11 on the California ballot to outlaw racial discrimination in hiring; and when it mounted its Operation Dixie program to unionize workers in the South: and when in the same year new laws were proposed to ban restrictive housing covenants in Pasadena, Glendale, Eagle Rock, and other southern California communities; and when these reforms received strong support from leaders of the liberal Federal Council of Churches and key members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy; and when it looked like these moves were coordinated by the same forces that had supported world government at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco only the year before—it was then that the New Christian Right was born…

Two themes are most important in Dochuk’s lively book. The first is the ideological synergy that Dochuk describes as Jefferson (and the principles of a government-averse yeomanry) in league with Jesus (and the principles of a God-offered salvation). The second is the California setting where voterregistration drives, fund-raising for the purposes of lobbying, incumbents targeted for defeat, interest-group advocacy on statewide referenda, and many other practical political strategies were a taken-for-granted fact of life decades before Jerry Falwell or Francis Schaeffer had even thought about Christian political action.

Dochuk’s revisionist account is strengthened by its nuance. He never contends that California was the whole story. Billy Graham’s famous evangelistic crusade in 1949, as one instance, strengthened ties between California’s conservative Protestants and evangelicals elsewhere in the country. Dochuk also recognizes that some political events touched religion only indirectly. Thus, the Senate election of 1950, in which Richard Nixon rode anti-communist attacks to victory, is important for the larger story mostly because it solidified the move of erstwhile Southern Democrats into the right-wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps most importantly, Dochuk also demonstrates that the California experience significantly modified certain aspects of the Southern plain-folk worldview. He is especially convincing that over time explicit racism gradually faded as a primary component of California’s conservative Protestants. But he is also persuasive that the anti-government ideology and pro-local entrepreneurialism that always accompanied Southern white racism did not fade away…

It is a fascinating read and links quite personally with episodes in my life back to the 1950s.  See The year my voice broke…, Time and friendships 2 — the class of ’59, Last night I was 15 again… On the other hand “Jefferson and Jesus” really cuts no ice in Australia. In so many ways while at one level quite understanding the “plain folks” I am reading about at another level it is like contemplating space aliens. Really! As Peter Hartcher says so well in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Australians deluded on meaning of US election.

… It’s interesting that, as the Herald reports today, an overwhelming 72 per cent of Australians would vote for the Democrats’ Barack Obama if they had a vote in the US presidential election while a mere 5 per cent would choose the Republicans’ Mitt Romney.

That is probably evidence of two facts. One is that, as the incumbent for four years, Australians know a good deal more about Obama than Romney.

Second is the fact that Australia is a much more left-leaning country than the US. In aggregate, Australians naturally incline to a Democrat world view more than a Republican one. And not only Australians, but the entire developed world, as it happens.

In Canada, for instance, the balance is similarly lopsided with voters preferring Obama by a margin of seven to one, according to a poll by Canadian Press-Harris Decima. And a Pew poll across 21 countries in June showed that ”Obama would cruise to re-election in November if Europeans and Japanese could vote,” as Agence-France Press put it.

”The centre of gravity of American opinion is much further to the right” than it is in any other rich country, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in their book The Right Nation.

The US is the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave, for instance, and the only one that does not pay child support to all families.

”America upholds the right to bear arms, the death penalty and strict sentencing laws,” write Micklethwait and Wooldridge, Englishmen both. ”The US is one of the few rich countries where abortion is a galvanising political issue, and perhaps the only one where half the families regularly say grace before meals.”…

The inability of Australians to distinguish their reality from America’s is leading to delusional thinking. Why?

”The mental transformation for Australians to put themselves into the shoes of average Americans is immense,” the chief executive of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Geoff Garrett, says. ”I think it’s close to impossible for Australians to understand why the centre of gravity in US America is so far to the right.”

For example: ”[Tony Abbott] has decided that major industrial relations reform is off the agenda. In the US, Australia would be considered profoundly anti-competitive and anti-market.”

A much more realistic way for Australians to assess the US is as a foreign country. As soon as we take that view, the question changes dramatically. It’s not which candidate you prefer, but which is likely to be better for Australia’s national interests?…

When I was young, and you were my street tutor…

Do you recognise that line? Here is more from the screenplay:

               Who is that bum?
     Scottie turns and meets Bob, who kneels next to him.
               Please leave me alone.
     Bob is thinking that Scottie's attitude is a joke.
               Don't think that I'm the same 
               Scottie that I was before. 
               Everyone has noticed that I have 
               turned away from that life, and 
               the people who kept me company.

     Bob is shocked.
     Outside, Mike can see through the windows of the restaurant, Bob 
     and Scottie talking.
     Int. Jakes. night.
               When I was young, and you were my 
               street tutor. An instigator for my 
               bad behavior, I was trying to 
               change. Now that I have, and until 
               I change back   don't come near 

     Bob feels the rejection like a shock. Stares at Scott for a 
     second, then he's pulled away by the bouncer.

Yes, it’s My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant 1991).  The scene parallels Shakespeare:

Enter KING HENRY V and his train, the Lord Chief- Justice among them

FALSTAFF  God save thy grace, King Hal! my royal Hal!

PISTOL  The heavens thee guard and keep, most royal imp of fame!

FALSTAFF  God save thee, my sweet boy!

KING HENRY V  My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?

FALSTAFF  My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING HENRY V  I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;

But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

Of all things I was thinking of the nudie romps of young Prince Harry and wondering if the family ever calls him Hal when I decided to give my copy of My Own Private Idaho a run, nothing on TV much appealing to me.


I’ve had that since 2007: “I am just back from a checkup at the Redfern doctor’s. Nice day for a bit of a walk around Redfern, and I found some good bargains at the Video-Ezy…” And I had never watched the second disk!  Well now I have and there is some excellent material there. The movie itself I first saw with M at the cinema in Sydney in 1991. First viewing I was of course intrigued by the appropriation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, though that meant nothing to M, being from Shanghai, who nonetheless enjoyed the movie at many of its other levels. I plan to watch it again later today. I am again intrigued.


It is rather obvious what is being evoked in that still.

I hadn’t known about this.

On the night James Franco hosted the Oscars, the show featured a segment in which veteran Oscars host Bob Hope was digitally brought back to life to compere one more time. It typified an Academy Awards show this year that rather failed to reconcile its desire to appeal to younger audiences with its need to remain reverential to its legacy.

Getting much less attention not far from the Kodak theatre, in Beverly Hills, was a gallery exhibition called Unfinished, where just two days prior to Oscar night Franco had presided over the rebirth of another fallen star. Working with director Gus van Sant, Franco launched a powerful installation of video art, cutting a 100-minute film full of unseen footage of River Phoenix from the dailies of Van Sant’s modern day classic My Own Private Idaho.

Showing alongside a series of watercolours by Van Sant designed to recall the colourful cast of hip and troubled teenagers that populated the 1991 release, which also starred Keanu Reeves, Franco’s film is by far the more interesting work. Through thick, ragged curtains, which hang from the gallery’s high ceilings, the film’s viewing space is dotted with threadbare sofas, folding chairs and an instant coffee dispenser…

River Phoenix died of an overdose just two years after making Idaho, leaving behind a powerful legacy of performance which included Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast and an Oscar-nominated turn in Running on Empty. But as the drug-taking, narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix delivered the gutsiest performance of his career and was rewarded with an Independent Spirit award for best male lead.

Franco calls his film My Own Private River and presents it as his study of the performance of one of the most talented young actors of the 80s and 90s. Van Sant shot hours of footage of his actors doing little more than living out their characters’ lives, and this forms the backbone of Franco’s re-edit. There’s a basic structure, as we follow Mike Waters around Portland, Oregon, shopping at a grocery store, scoring drugs and having sex with clients, but there’s no real narrative on offer.

The footage is set to its raw soundtrack, so what dialogue there is tends to be muffled or entirely inaudible, and it’s punctuated with meditative scenes in which very little happens at all. The piece isn’t about an actor translating a script, but rather an actor displaying natural instinct and real nuance for his craft, and it’s made all the more powerful by the knowledge of what happened next in his life…

Have a look at this very personal and also very insightful post from September 2011:


MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO is a flawed movie, to put it mildly, but the flaws fall away in the famous campfire scene where Mike confesses his love to Scott. Van Sant had written this scene as just a passing fancy where Mike hits on Scott because he’s bored and horny. In his script, Van Sant indicated some sexual contact between them, but he left it up to the actors to take it as far as they wanted. As Van Sant originally conceived them, Scott and Mike weren’t gay or straight but viewed sex only as a job. Phoenix had befriended the gay cameraman Bobby Bukowski on the movie Dogfight (1991), and Bukowski supposedly influenced Phoenix to make Mike specifically gay. Phoenix wrote most of the campfire scene himself.

“If I had a normal family and a good upbringing then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” Mike says to Scott, in his soft, measured, uncertain voice, as they recline by the fire together (he spends the whole film looking for his lost mother, while Scott spends most of the movie putting off his powerful mayor father). Scott laughs at Mike a little as he continues to talk about wanting a normal life, a normal Mom, a dog. “So you didn’t have a normal dog?” Scott asks. Reeves is totally in tune with the film’s dry humor here, but the pre-occupied Mike doesn’t get Scott’s joke. “No, I didn’t have a dog,” he says, either unwilling or unable to joke around with Scott. “What’s a normal Dad?” Scott suddenly asks, dropping his cooler-than-thou act and posing a question that he really wants an answer to…

Part of me hates My Own Private Idaho and how the true things in it come out of the compromises in it that needed to be made. Part of me wishes I’d not seen My Own Private Idaho when I was 15, yet the film is so much a part of who I am that it feels unavoidable, not just in its confession of love that leads to total ruin but in sexual templates with older men that were laid down for me like the law. Mike embraces his last older john with a mixture of confused, slightly disgusted tenderness and I know now that such encounters were in front of me at 15 and are now mainly behind me (there’s only so long you can turn certain tricks, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois). As I move within hailing distance of becoming Daddy Carroll, it feels more important to me to figure out what it was like to be Mike, and whether love should ever be confessed as he confesses it…

Scott takes up with an Italian girl in the last third of Idaho, and the abandoned Mike is last seen in a narcoleptic blackout on a long stretch of highway. After two truckers steal his shoes, the camera lifts upward and we see a cab pull up to Mike’s prostrate body. A youngish man gets out to put Mike in the cab, which then drives off. I’d always hoped as a teenager that this man was Scott, but on the Criterion DVD, it’s revealed that the man was supposed to be Mike’s brother (James Russo), who might also be his father. Van Sant, however, decided to leave the man’s identity ambiguous. In a conversation with Todd Haynes on the DVD, Van Sant even wonders if this mystery man might be a farmer who could take Mike in and let him rest. Maybe, he says, Mike will even find a boy to love on this farm. To which I say, Mary, please.

Van Sant’s pipe dream for Mike sounds about as likely as the story Tennessee Williams told Claire Bloom when she asked him what happens to Blanche after she’s led away to the nuthouse at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams told Bloom that Blanche would charm the asylum doctors and eventually be released to open a charming boutique in the French Quarter with her sister Stella. That might have been the sentimentality of too much liquor talking, but so many gay men are romantic dreamers, so eager to please, so tempted by self-pity, so ready to be cradled after a confession of love, so hungry for unlikely happy endings. I’m sorry, Gus, but Mike looks to me like he’s on the last rung down to the graveyard, where he will join the actor who played him so passionately along with all the other unrealistic hopes that outsiders try to shelter in their work because they’ve been blown to bits in real life. And if you say, “To hell with real life,” I’m afraid that real life will eventually say, “To hell with you,” in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching…

Looking forward to watching the movie again. It really does grow on you, and I am not sure it is quite as flawed as Dan Callahan thinks. On the second disk is a very interesting commentary called Kings of the Road that really opens the movie for me. I commend it to you.

… Next up is “The Making of My Own Private Idaho,” a documentary that runs about 40 minutes and includes editor Curtis Clayton, directors of photography John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards and production designer David Brisbin talking about the film’s development, production and post-production. Good stuff, if you enjoy going beyond the principal creatives to find out what other above-the-line people think about filmmaking.

“Kings of the Road” is almost 45 minutes and features critic Paul Arthur explaining how Van Sant weaved the Shakespeare plays, Orson Welles’ “Falstaff” and influences from previous road movies into a unique work. This is the sort of stuff you rarely see in big studio releases; it’s certainly aimed at those who want to not only learn more about a movie but also think about its major themes and ideas.

River Phoenix’s legacy is remembered in a conversation between producer Laurie Parker and River’s younger sister, Rain, that clocks in at almost 20 minutes. It’s a pretty candid look at an actor who tragically died way too early. River Phoenix had a lot to offer the film world.

Since “My Own Private Idaho” features homelessness pretty prominently, it only makes sense that LeRoy and director Jonathan Caouette would sit down to talk about how their own street experiences have influenced their work, I suppose. Both have connections to Van Sant—he produced Caouette’s film “Tarnation” and used LeRoy’s screenplay for his film “Elephant”—but beyond that, I’m not sure these two deserve more than 50 minutes of special features space for their discussion, especially when you consider that this is another audio-only track…

I did watch it again

21 years! I just can’t believe it. The movie did not disappoint.