Word from Australia
Observations from the Land Down Under
Today is the solstice. It is the Winter solstice in the Northern half of the planet, the moment at which our days are shortest, our nights longest, and so begins the long slow return to more light. We call it the first day of Winter, although in some traditions it marks mid-Winter. In the southern half of the globe—where this week’s post originates from—today is the Summer solstice. The days are long, the nights short, and so Summer begins (or, again, so marks mid-Summer, depending on your particular tradition).
For some years during graduate school, I successfully gamed my own photoperiod by traveling south of the equator during the northern winter months, thus getting both more sunlight and more heat in the space of one year than I really had any right to. Madagascar, where I lived and did research, was challenging in many ways, but cold and dark it was not.
The same can now be said of many parts of Australia.
Mike Nayna is a friend of ours—Bret’s and mine—and he is Australian. He wrote us an email a week and a half ago which we both found so compelling that I asked him if we could share it. He said yes. We shared a bit of it on DarkHorseLive109, which streamed on December 18, 2021; his entire email is below.
Mike is a filmmaker, producer and writer. He won both awards and popular acclaim for his film Digilante, worked behind the scenes for years documenting The Grievance Studies Affair (the brainchild of Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose), and produced a three-part documentary of the meltdown at Evergreen that continues to blow people’s minds. It was in these latter two contexts in which we came to know Mike, although we never saw things exactly as some of his other friends did—Helen, for instance, has (fondly) referred to him as an “intolerable reprobate.” Perhaps I think of him more as a “deep thinking rascal.” Mike edited Helen and James’s book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-And Why This Harms Everybody. And with brothers Dayne and Clyde Rathbone, Mike co-founded Letter.wiki (since acquired by Substack).
Mike Nayna’s email to us, from December 10, 2021
Heather. Bret. I saw this clip -
- and thought I'd offer some information to beef up your map of what's taking place here in Oceania.
Heather's analogy to the reporters covering the Portland riots of 2020 is close to how I see it too. While gathering personal stories and perspectives on the ground it becomes clear that experiences differ from state to state, from suburb to suburb, and even house to house. There's something absurd in trying to describe it all in monolithic terms, "Australians are...".
Some things that have stuck with me...
A friend of my brother broke up with his girlfriend and rented a shoebox apartment in the city shortly before the pandemic hit. The lockdowns meant he was stranded by himself with no friends within the sanctioned zone. Effectively solitary confinement. He didn't look well when I saw him.
I would see workers in hazmat suits walking around spraying street signs with disinfectant. Not the pole, the sign itself. This was after we knew quite a lot about how the virus spreads.
I saw a man in a canoe stopped by a police boat.
I was in South Melbourne for most of the lockdown and it wasn't uncommon for me to have encounters with police each week. It was polite and respectful in most cases but not always. My brother had barely any encounters with police in the suburbs.
I was pulled over by two policemen on motorbikes, sirens and all, for having my nose sticking out of the top of my mask. It was a sunny day and I was alone for at least 300m in all directions. They were not polite.
It was illegal for me to see my family for the better part of a year. Even outdoors. Because they lived outside of a permitted zone.
My sister was home alone with two boys, aged 4 and 6, for around 8 months while her husband was stuck in Africa. We had to obtain a doctor's letter to visit her. When I'd arrive she'd burst out of the house as if she were escaping something.
A friend went for a run and was stopped by police. They checked her ID and asked what she was doing. She said she was exercising. Two hours later she got home and they were waiting to fine her for exceeding the time limit for permitted exercise.
There were high tensions between rule following-types and those that were willing to reason things out for themselves. Even within families, which was hard. We'd get to points where the logic would be well-considered and laid out, and it was understood by everyone that bending a rule would pose no greater risk than the rule would permit, yet rule-followers would still refuse to bend it. People deferred sensemaking to the central authority and felt that this was doing their part for the greater good. In this way their rules held moral authority, which raised the affective temperature between citizens.
People were optimizing their behavior to avoid fines and not COVID itself. I've heard that in China there are so many regulations that they can pick you up for anything and find the clause to justify it afterward. People there feel the need to defer to central authority because they always feel unsure. This is exactly what was taking place in Victoria. Endless calls to hotlines where the operator would do nothing more than read you the official COVID website. If you asked for help to reason through something not explicitly defined on the site they would avoid taking any initiative and say things like "I'm not sure if that's permitted. It will be up to the police officer if they fine you or not for that. Perhaps don't do it to be safe."
I can't tell you how long I've spent tangled in bureaucratic webs but it's far more than several working weeks. I set up twelve different shoots that were all canceled at one point or another because we ran up against COVID bureaucracy. Lazy institutional folk with guaranteed paychecks had a valid excuse to turn down any request for their efforts and others were terrified of making a decision that resulted in COVID transmission.
I had an admittedly enjoyable experience plotting out and executing an illegal border crossing. I won't go into the details but we posed less risk entering than the people inside the state at the time but that wouldn't have mattered if we were caught.
These are just some things that come to mind as I mindlessly type. I could go on and on. The way I make sense of it is that the more you try to control from a centralized point the more absurdities you'll see on the ground when broad-brush policy chafes up against reality. For me, the amount of authority an appeal to the “greater good” can hold is proportional to the competency of the organisation making it, and I was constantly confronted with examples of incompetency because of the life I lead. I can see how it would be easy for someone to move their life into their living room, watch the news, and assume everything was running smoothly. Perhaps even take pride in the positive statistical configurations and our "strong leadership".
I see this more clearly now that I've made it out to West Australia, one of the last places on earth with zero COVID. It was a harrowing feat of bureaucratic endurance to secure an exemption and they let me through with two weeks of solitary quarantine and a stern warning "we won't let you back in if you leave". I've left the most severe lockdown measures in the world and entered the land that COVID forgot. I try to relate my experience of Melbourne to the people here but they just stare blankly as I try to communicate the incommunicable. They know nothing of the lockdown life and have nothing but positive things to say about the leadership. There's a sense that we're just delaying the inevitable but here I am, enjoying life in a time capsule.
I think the core of the split between the Americans who want to send in troops to rescue us from our own government and the bizarre "everything is great" reporting here is that Americans see our deranged policies contextualized through a social media delivery mechanism that selects for the most shocking clips and case studies. They rightfully scream "1984!" when the day-to-day experience for most people here is something like Brave New World with alcohol in place of Soma.
By the time I escaped Victoria everyone I knew was confused and listless. The leadership had poured political acid over the life and spirit of the city and our ability to make sense of perfectly valid feelings of injustice had been taken away by a laptop class, mostly in other states, who took control of the conversation. In my experience most Australian intellectuals are only ever three or four questions away from revealing they believe we should be ruled over by philosopher-kings. We just don't have the cultural bulwark around freedom that you have in the US. We have state-funded media that's gradually transitioning to state media as our Overton window puckers up tighter than the bumholes of the people that control it.
A line was crossed for me in Victoria and, as Bret already knows, I've decided to leave the country. There's a ticking clock on my COVID free paradise here in Perth and I'm in the process of pulling my shit back together, completing a few projects, and stacking up resources to make the move. Our mutual friend Dave Stephens has offered to help. Very cool guy. I've needed to sit on the social media sidelines to keep my head through all this but picture me in a Rocky-style montage of spirit building. I'll jump back into the fray with you soon enough.
Much love, and please continue being excellent specimens.
On December 17, Mike followed up with this:
One more thing to keep you up to date, it’s summer now and the east coast is at long last moving from a zero Covid paradigm into a mitigation model. My sense from talking to family and looking at Instagram feeds is that lives are starting to look a little more normal and memories of the police state are beginning to fade.
I’m sure many, like myself, saw something they don’t want to forget so quickly and are unsettled by the state’s capacity to flick the switch like they did.