What’s Melbourne like to live in at the moment? Grim, Jack. Very grim.
The world’s most liveable city has descended into something like the Mexican hell that Jim Thompson describes at the end of The Getaway: once you’re in the gulag, baby, there ain’t no way of getting out.
Except via the wooden kimono.
It was a little less than three months ago that I announced to you that long-term parking during Lockdown 1.0 had not been wasted time for yours truly. In this post, I announced that, besides having time to pen 27,000 words of commentary on the Coronavirus crisis, I had had time to write five complete drafts of a 6,000-7,000-word book on same for my seven-year-old niece.
Well, today I can announce that another massive step towards publishing this book has been accomplished: During Lockdown 2.0, I’ve had time to completely edit the audiobook version of my next book, recorded while I was ‘on parole’ between incarcerations.
You can listen to a sample of the audiobook above.
I am also pleased to announce the title of my forthcoming book: Letter to My Niece: Reflections during Lockdown on COVID, Technology, and the Next Generation’s Future.
It took me nearly 66 hours to research and write five complete drafts of this letter in which I attempt to explain the Coronavirus situation to my little niece; discuss the rôle I think that technology—particularly artificial intelligence—will play in her future; set forth some principles for moral comportment which I hope will serve her in times of existential uncertainty; and try to impart to her some spiritual message of hope, despite the darkness I foresee.
It was, as I said in the post where I discussed the process of writing this letter, an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. There were times when tears were streaming down my face as I penned the final, handwritten draft of the 31-page letter to her.
When I finished writing the letter on June 2, stay-at-home restrictions in Victoria were tentatively easing: we were at the end of our first week of post-lockdown liberty, although I, in a fever of literary activity, had still not left my little room at The Miami Hotel in West Melbourne.
I had my first housesit in two months scheduled for two days later in Bacchus Marsh, and I was determined the finish the manuscript before booking to Bacchus, so I could record the audiobook whilst there.
I said it took me nearly 66 hours to research and write the book from end to end. Well, to give you some comparison, it took me 5 ½ hours to record it and 48 ½ hours to edit it—a total of 54 hours.
In other words, it took me nearly as much time to record and edit what I wrote as it took me to write it.
But if you had told me at the beginning of June that five weeks later, after a brief flirtation with freedom, Melbourne would be slammed back in the slammer, and I would be editing—for weeks on end—the audio version of what I had written in the same little cell where I wrote it for weeks on end, I would hope, Señor, that you are—how you say?—loco.
No estás loco.
Copying the mail of chatter from states to the north and west of us, I doubt that anybody outside Victoria can really appreciate how dark the last two months have been for us—especially for those of us here in Melbourne.
We’re in a Stasi state: we’ve been jailed by our government for their incompetence during Lockdown #1.
When I announced the completion of Letter to My Niece to you in June, I said that I felt privileged to be a writer during the first lockdown, that the process of writing a book by hand for my little niece under such circumstances had felt like a reconnection with my ancient avocation: As the greatest minds have passed the lessons of their experience down to us by hand, their words surviving wars, pandemics and other catastrophes, so I was passing on a few sign posts gleaned from my own experience to the next generation.
But in Lockdown #2, there have been nights when I have sat in the little hotel room I am obliged by law not to leave and have literally cried at the unbelievable and escalating horror of Soviet-style repression I am ‘privileged’ to live through and bear witness to as a writer.
When I hear the horrendous tales of people’s despair in Melbourne during this second lockdown, I don’t feel privileged to be a writer, I feel fortunate.
I feel fortunate to have spent 37 years of life honing the mastercraft of focusing one’s mind and directing it, day after day, towards the realization of a distant goal: the translation of abstract thought into crystallized words on paper.
But for honing the mastercraft of focusing my mind and striving each day of this second incarceration to create—and re-create—the words I wrote three months ago in Letter to My Niece as an audiobook, I might easily be one of the heart-breaking number of people in Melbourne who, imprisoned by the Government, have ended their empty days in despair.
As I argued in this post, in understanding the situation here in Melbourne which precipitated a second lockdown, you cannot underestimate the rôle that boredom, that ennui, that a society of the spectacle suddenly relieved of all its levers of distraction played in metastasizing the discontent Melburnians feel with the Andrews Government.
A vacuum was created―and into lives and minds made suddenly empty, the Devil can find plenty of work to fill idle hands.
Fortunately, as a writer, I have work that occupies both mind and hands, and as much of an unendurable grind as I found it to edit 5 ½ hours of my own voice down to 67 minutes and 12 seconds, to turn up each day and winnow four more minutes of audio out of three hours’ work was as satisfying as that feeling a writer gets when the unenvisageable end of his book is finally glimmering on the horizon.
Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t the pleasure of hearing my own voice for three hours a day that kept my bird up!
No, it was a repetition of the effect I had experienced in writing the words during Lockdown #1.
It happens very, very rarely, but occasionally I write words that move me to tears, and being as merciless a critic of my own work as I am, when that all too rare event happens, I know the words are good.
Getting no words of hope from the Premier, I got them from myself.
When I recorded the voice track at Bacchus, I wasn’t aiming for anything except to get through what I knew would be an all-day slog of reading as efficiently as possible.
But when, several weeks later, I began to assemble and edit the raw tracks on the timeline and cobble together ‘perfect takes’ of each sentence, much as, when writing my books, I edit my sentences down to their final, ‘perfect’ form, I was astonished to hear something in my voice I was too exhausted to notice as I was recording it.
As I edited the voice track, I was occasionally moved to tears to hear my message to my little niece delivered with an intensity, and a sincerity, and a sternness of conviction we don’t often hear from so-called ‘leaders’, and other public speakers, today.
There isn’t a parental—let alone a paternal—bone in my body, and yet I was surprised to hear an almost ‘fatherly’ tone of intense, stern conviction—as of a man setting forth an uncompromising vision with the rectitude of absolute candour—in my voice, a tone which I hardly recognized as my own.
In keeping with the bespoke æsthetic of Letter to My Niece, it was important to me that my little niece should not only be able to read my words to her in my own hand, but that she should be able to hear my voice speaking the message of hope I had written to her.
The number of times I’ve spoken to her on the telephone could be counted on less than five fingers, so she has no knowledge of who her uncle is, what kind of character that man has, or what he believes in. The audiobook, as a kind of ‘read-along’ accompaniment to the text, was intended to give her as bespoke a reading experience and as intimate an introduction to her uncle as it’s possible for so intimate a medium for communicating thought to give.
So, having got through the grind of editing the audiobook, I’m up to the design and layout phase of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process. I hope to be able to post one more update on my progress, giving you a glimpse of what I envision for the handwritten manuscript in book form, before I officially release Letter to My Niece in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.
I can hardly wait to add a fresh product to the Bookstore, but as I tell my clients, the working of writing and publishing is ‘a work of many days’, and wait I must—at least for a few more days yet.
Have you checked out my Bookstore lately? It’s undergoing a renovation and revamp, and I’m very pleased with how it’s progressing.
I’ve added new internal product pages for four out of five of my books, as at the time of this post. If you click on Flowers Red and Black, Brazen Gifts for Gold, Things we do for Love, or Follow Me, My Lovely…, you will be taken directly to internal pages for these books, where you can now preview them online in their available formats, hear and watch me read excerpts, and order copies from me directly.
I’ve also instituted a new ‘custom order’ service, so each product page has a contact form whereby you can inquire with me directly about bespoke orders.
If you have any special requests, such as that you would like me to write a specific, personalised message when I sign and dedicate the book to you, or if you would like to purchase a number of books as gifts and want me to take care of distribution on your behalf, you can drop me a line via these contact forms and I can negotiate a custom deal with you, bespoke to your needs.
You will find me very willing to accommodate you as best I can. Particularly if you know someone down here who could use the company of a good book, I’ll go out of my way to write an encouraging dedication and prepare a thoughtful package for them.
It’s time once again to take up my pen and make some pragmatic appraisals of the current situation vis-à-vis the Coronavirus here on The Melbourne Flâneur.
As the world’s most liveable city is filed in the deep freeze yet again, your correspondent is embedded in a trench à deux pas from the front line: I have merely to turn my head and take a hinge out the window and I’m nez-à-nez with North Melbourne.
Your Melbourne Flâneur’s much-vaunted capacity to exercise his gams more dexterously than a Las Vegas showgirl is not even tested in this situation: a twenty-minute stroll would take me to 33 Alfred street, the North Melbourne tower block where 500 souls are battened down while the Coronavirus creeps among them.
So, what brought Melbourne to the extraordinary pass where the Premier was forced to reinstitute a metro-wide lockdown last Thursday?
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews didn’t exactly fall on his sword in his self-denouncing copping to culpability over the State’s handling of hotel quarantine. It was, methinks, more an energetic probing of one’s innards with a poniard.
It will be for the State and Commonwealth inquiries to ultimately determine to what extent mishandling of Victoria’s hotel quarantine procedures was causative in the increase of community transmission we saw throughout June. But to the snoopy snout of yours truly, the smoking pistol doesn’t seem to lie in this direction.
The breeze seems to my sniffer to be blowing from another direction, and I don’t buy the official line set forth by the Government and the media.
This is unfortunate, as it highlights the problems in schematic collective sensemaking of the Coronavirus which I have been at pains to parse in this series.
A number of factors, psychological and political—not all of them obvious—seem to me to have more directly caused the escalation in cases which led to the Melbourne lockdown.
Let’s take a range at the timeline of events.
In Victoria, to my eye at least, the graph line tracking the total number of confirmed cases appears to take on a distinct but shallow gradient around 3 May, coincident with the Cedar Meats outbreak in Brooklyn, in the City of Brimbank.
Now, of course, we should bear in mind—(for the Premier has bored us to tears with the repetition of this fact)—that Victoria has had one of the highest rates of testing for Coronavirus anywhere in the world, and the markedly different numbers in Victoria as compared to the rest of the country are in some sense a function of the fact that the testing regimen here has been so thorough.
But, as I’m going to argue throughout this article, Melbourne is once again under lockdown because of what might be called the ‘convenience of invisibility’ associated with this virus, and the more or less arbitrary response people can make in orienting their behaviour towards the reality of it due to its invisibility and its latency of manifestation.
On 8 May, following a meeting of the National Cabinet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-step plan for the gradual easing of Coronavirus restrictions in Australia. Each step would be implemented approximately four weeks apart commencing in May, but the precise timetable for rollout would be at the discretion of individual states and territories.
In Victoria, the decision was taken to delay the easing of lockdown restrictions and the phased re-opening of the economy by a week or two, until more testing had been done.
One can debate the virtue of caution demonstrated in this decision, but as regards the rigorous attitude taken towards testing and data aggregation in Victoria with respect to the rest of the nation, the question for collective sensemaking seems to me to hinge on this point:
Given that the enemy is invisible; given its paradoxical speed of transmission and latency of manifestation; given its astonishing breadth of manifestation—from no symptoms at all right through to mortal respiratory failure—if one chooses to believe in the reality of a foe who reconciles all these contradictions in itself, such that it beggars the common sense and credulity of ordinary people to believe in it, and then one tests accordingly for this foe on the premises that it exists, that it is widespread, and that it is a clear and present danger to the community, one is going to find—as in the case of Victoria—more of what one is looking for than if one takes a less rigorous approach based on more limited credulity.
The cautious decisions taken by the State Government seem to reflect these assumptions in sensemaking.
Yet even within Victoria, the competition of credence and scepticism about the reality and severity of the Coronavirus, and the necessity for the hard economic measures which were taken to check it, was gathering political and social momentum.
By the middle of May, the Premier was under pressure for his apparent feet-dragging over the implementation of the COVIDSafe Roadmap. The sedative of cash injections, which had kept people safely closeted on their fainting couches at home, was starting to wear off, and the natives were now getting restless, both physically and morally.
They wanted to get out of the house, and those with any financial stake in the economy wanted to get Victoria, the engine-room of the nation, firing on all four cylinders again.
In an egregious example of what I called, in an earlier article in this series, ‘online viral incivility’, Tim Smith, an Opposition front-bencher, tweeted that the Premier was a ‘friendless loser’ for his lenteur in opening up the state again to free movement and trade, and compared him to Lurch from The Addams Family.
But the criticism that the Premier’s approach to the easing of restrictions during the month of May was contradictory and inconsistent is valid. On 24 May, with daily cases wrestled back down to ‘sustainable’ levels, Mr. Andrews announced that on Tuesday 26 May, the state would slowly begin to unzip the kimono in earnest.
The strategy was to join other states in territories at step 2 of the three-step recovery roadmap on 1 June, but with some modifications. Restaurants, pubs and cafés—the agoras of Melbourne life—which were assumed, under the national roadmap, to be already open, would only be allowed to open their doors to sit-in patrons on 1 June, though at the capacity commensurate with step 2.
Tuesday 26 May is a very significant date on the Coronavirus timeline. For as we were taking our first fresh breaths of the changeable Melbourne climate, fifteen hours behind us in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a man named George Floyd was taking his last breaths of life.
The significance of this event for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation has not been properly appreciated. This distant event, which would have been hardly remarked in Melbourne if the equilibrium of life had not been so thoroughly knocked off its axis by the world-historical disruption of a global pandemic, is more central to our current local crisis than many people realize, or the institutional authorities of government and media care to admit.
This unfortunate incident took preponderant hold of the public imaginary all over the world, and it also took hold in Melbourne, erasing from memory events in the media cycle which were much more locally relevant and had equally exercised the outrage of Melburnians only a month before.
A Spenglerian view of history is required to appreciate what is not even an irony but a deep morphological accord of nature, a ‘rhyme’ in the poetry of time which connects events in Melbourne and Minneapolis across miles and a month.
It’s a deep synchronicity of history that on 22 April, four police officers should be killed on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway, the driver allegedly responsible for their deaths videoing and crowing over their final moments before fleeing the scene, and that on 25 May, one man in Minneapolis should be just as outrageously killed by four police officers, his final moments also obscenely videoed.
These two events are mirrors, inversions of each other, beats in the exponentially accelerating tattoo which time, in the 21st century, is undergoing as we cycle at ever-shortening revolutions towards existential catastrophe and civilizational collapse.
In the Spenglerian view, they are, in fact, the same event repeated: only in the superficial details, the ‘manifest content’ of the news stories, are they different from one another. In their deepest morphology, they subscribe in all essentials to the structure and pattern of events which is characteristic of our post-Faustian times.
Both are manifestations of the principle of networkcentricity which I stated, in an earlier post, as being not only the fundamental characteristic of the Coronavirus, but of the conditions of life in the 21st century.
So why, then, should one event as horrific, as callous, and as contemptuous of human life as another, separated only by the beat of a month, have inspired a global phase shift of viral incivility online, the wave of which swept to engulf Melbourne, and the other, closer to home, should not?
The answer, I would submit, is that the exponent of belief, of credulity in the reality of the Coronavirus and the necessity of containing it, was higher in the month of April than it was in the month of May, and served to constrain the exponent of metastasizing viral incivility, which had itself undergone a step function in April and May due to the enforced idleness of a global lockdown.
Though the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway, and the alleged behaviour of Richard Pusey, the man responsible for their deaths, was equally as outrageous as the death of George Floyd and the behaviour of Derek Chauvin and the other police officers responsible for his death, the response of Melburnians in April was not to stage a ‘peaceful riot’ to protest the outrageous behaviour of Mr. Pusey.
In compliance with what can only be considered (whether justified or unjustified) as the repressive measures of the Victorian Government to constrain freedom of expression and freedom of movement during a global pandemic, Melburnians stayed in their homes, and the extent of their demonstration against this local tragedy was to burn blue lights on their doorsteps, fly blue balloons, and tie blue ribbons to their mailboxes.
This too was an example of the viral spread of imitative behaviour in a networked world, an appropriation of the doorstep demonstrations Britons had lately made in applauding their National Health Service.
The spread of this positive behaviour was a rare example of viral civility: the synchronicity of the tragedy in Melbourne with the gratitude lately evinced towards front-line workers in Britain provided Melburnians not merely with a model for peaceful demonstration against an outrageous tragedy under conditions of social restriction, but it coincided with a positive global sentiment towards so-called ‘essential workers’ who were ‘on the front line’ of the pandemic protecting our health and safety—including police officers.
By contrast, after the death of Mr. Floyd on 25 May, there would be no global sentiment of gratitude towards the police. In a mere month, they would go from being ‘essential workers’ to agents of state repression who ought to be ‘defunded’.
There’s no historical coincidence, no political irony in the fact that on the same day that Mr. Floyd was dying in outrageous circumstances, Melburnians were moving headlong to re-embrace their heavily restricted freedom with more alacrity than caution. In this networked world on fast forward, the global mood, the whole tenor of feeling towards the Coronavirus had changed materially in a month, morphing, metastasizing just as fast as the virus itself via the global network of media.
What I am suggesting is that, by the time the first cautious easing of lockdown restrictions commenced in Victoria on 26 May, a critical threshold of disbelief in the reality of the Coronavirus, and of boredom with the novelty of circumstances which it had brought in its train, had taken hold of the public imaginary, not merely in Melbourne, but all over the world.
As regards the Australian scene, the sedative of cash injections and other bribes to stay at home could no longer placate the plebs. More than two months of enforced idleness where the only social exposure was to a polluted global sensemaking architecture, a cognitive commons which had itself undergone a profound metastasis in viral incivility during that time, now had people hyped up and edgy.
They wanted to get out of the house. They wanted to be near other people again—whatever the risk or consequence.
Moreover, it had taken more than two months of watching the Titanic of the economy sink from the safety of their living rooms for people to grok to some of n-th order infinite impact consequences of the Coronavirus which I alerted you to in my first post on this topic on 17 March. Dimly, people began to compute that the medical component of this crisis was not even the most important aspect of this affair; that there were economic, political—and even geo-political—consequences which had been set in train in Wuhan months ago.
One of the most interesting trends I began to detect in the public conversation about the Coronavirus towards the end of the Victorian lockdown was the degree to which this nexus of crises was constellating itself on the dimension of age demographics.
The young people who would shortly throw social distancing to the wind were beginning to question the moral advisability of the decision taken by governments to preserve the lives of older people, who have done comparatively very well out of our broken politico-economic paradigm, by sacrificing the livelihoods of their impoverished offspring.
The rhetoric in April was that millennials were happy to make that sacrifice, that however atrophied their sense of civic responsibility towards their elders was by the successive deceits of Boomer governments, the fund of generational goodwill was still not entirely bankrupted.
I never believed that rhetoric. A writer is a kind of ‘applied psychologist’, and once you’re cognizant of the psycho-social laws which govern human behaviour, you’re not deceived by such wishful thinking.
I could see a backlash coming promptly. I knew that millennial bitterness over the betrayals of our current politico-economic paradigm ran too deeply to be materially altered by such a novel event—even one of global proportions—particularly as this world-historical event is the direct product of the extractive economic policies of successive Boomer governments, who have kicked the can of debt down the road to their children and grandchildren.
By the time the ABC broadcast their Q&A program focusing on the impact of the Coronavirus on young people on 18 May, just one week before the death of Mr. Floyd, it was impossible for a sensitive observer not to perceive that the tenor of sentiment towards the measures taken by state and Commonwealth governments, valuing human life above economic livelihood, had subtly changed.
In fine, credulity and credence in the reality of the Coronavirus had been corroded by two months of enforced idleness and exposure to a polluted cognitive commons.
The spectacle of our economy is a spectacle of distraction: almost all economic levers in a leisure-class society are pushed in the direction of maximally distracting individuals from thought. With the mechanism largely on pause, people, in their invidious game-theoretic strategizing, began to catch up in their computations and calculate forward to the probable consequences of this crisis which I alerted you to in March.
In the case of the Coronavirus, the political problem for a government who enjoins a responsibility of idleness upon an able-bodied workforce that is normally distracted from civil unrest by the mechanics of an operating economy is that, if people are locked in their homes against an invisible enemy constellated of paradoxical contradictions, and if the government’s stay-at-home directives are successful in driving down mortality (thus rendering the virus even more ‘invisible’), people begin to question the reality of a foe they can’t see, and which beggars their common sense.
As regards the current situation in Melbourne, I argue that the Government’s success in driving down mortality during the first lockdown by miraculously engaging a willing compliance from a populace whose fund of trust they had utterly overdrawn prior to this crisis was instrumental in creating conditions whereby a second lockdown would become necessary, one in which compliance can only be engaged by overt coercion.
The issue for maintaining civil order is this: The vacuum created by a cessation of economic activity which would have ordinarily distracted people from demonstrating their antipathies towards the Government, and the directive to stay at home so that the mortal consequences of the virus were rendered invisible to people, created conditions whereby an idle populace had time to imbibe counter-propaganda about the Coronavirus via a polluted cognitive commons.
Moreover, to put it in Realpolitik terms, if a government doesn’t set a sufficiently high benchmark on the levels of mortality it is prepared to tolerate among the population it is governing, it cannot make the clear and present threat to the public’s health sufficiently visible to encourage endogenous compliance with its stay-at-home directives.
I suspect that the majority of Western democratic governments—including Australia’s—rejected the herd immunity strategy (which would have favoured the economy) and chose suppression instead not out of any principled moral stance about ‘the sanctity of human life’, but because allowing a percentage of your population to die in peacetime not only makes you unelectable at the party-political level, but opens the state up to public liability issues in the future.
In Max Weber’s terms, killing a percentage of your population in peacetime amounts to an abuse of the monopoly of violence which the state arrogates to itself.
As far as I can see, there’s no way, in a liberal, enlightened, Western democratic society, for a government to get the balance right, and in favouring life over livelihood through a strategy of suppression, the National Cabinet opted to create conditions whereby the preservation of one demographic which was mortally vulnerable to the Coronavirus metastasized civil disaffection in another demographic which was vulnerable to its politico-economic effects.
This, I contend, was the nexus of factors which crystallized in the conjunction of George Floyd’s death and the easing of restrictions in Victoria on 26 May, and it was this conjunction which led to a phase shift, a further metastasis of the Coronavirus crisis, ultimately resulting in the present lockdown in Melbourne.
By 26 May, the distracting novelty of the situation and the one carrot the Government had at its disposal to encourage short-term compliance, the sedative of cash injections, had worn off, and the paranoid counter-narratives imbibed through the polluted cognitive commons of legacy media, Internet and social media had taken unconscious hold of the public imaginary.
I submit that when the Premier released us from lockdown, a critical threshold of incredulity had been passed in the public imaginary: people were ‘bored’ with the Coronavirus, and the successful insulation against its visibility which resulted from the Government’s suppression strategy had, during lockdown, given them time to think, to imbibe paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives, and to question the reality of this invisible, contradictory foe with whom very few of them had had direct contact and experience.
The rôle that boredom played in the resurgence of cases here in Melbourne cannot be overstated.
For it is one of the most salient contradictions in the behaviour of this paradoxical virus that it should spread exponentially within hours and yet take two to three weeks to become manifest in a population. And in an economy of distraction which is operating on as advanced an exponent as ours, the tempo of which is being continually accelerated by the metastasis of the media cycle, that period of latency is now outside the scope of most people’s patience or memory.
Moreover, for those who were the least physically vulnerable to the Coronavirus but the most economically impacted by it, apart from having their goodwill towards their elders overdrawn, their patience for social distancing was also exhausted. The exercise of liberty which had been severely restricted probably led to an over-compensation in free movement, and the high spirits of youth naturally drew people who had been physically apart more closely together than social distancing allowed.
Those are two of the more ‘innocent’ factors which contributed to the increase in cases during June.
But if one of the fault-lines of social inequality which this virus has exposed is age-based, it’s more than ironic bad luck for the Victorian Government that the death of Mr. Floyd should coincide with the political and economic anxieties of millennials, who have been agitated to civil unrest by a generation who is susceptible to the Coronavirus.
I could not have predicted that the death of a man in Minneapolis would be the catalyst to the backlash I was expecting against the severe social restrictions enjoined on us by governments as measures against the Coronavirus, but I knew that in this networked world it would require only a small historical incident to set the spark to the tinder of discontent that was primed to explode in a cascade of viral incivility all around the world—even in Melbourne.
Despite being equal in its tawdry, banal horror to the event in Minneapolis—and more locally relevant—the outrageous behaviour of Richard Pusey could not have gotten people into Swanston street en masse in late April for two reasons: their patient forbearance with the Government’s social distancing measures was not yet exhausted, and they still believed in the reality of the Coronavirus.
Those factors served to constrain civil unrest. But the death of Mr. Floyd a month later coincided with a moment when the Government had to release people from their homes because willing, endogenous compliance with social restrictions was on the verge of faltering—if it had not already begun to do so.
In such cases, a government, if it is to preserve its legitimacy, must be seen to ‘give’ people back their liberty—for if they choose to take it back in spite of a government’s edicts, that government cannot maintain social order and cohesion in the long run.
And in a world where the legitimacy of all Western democratic governments is now being questioned by their populations, in its caution over the easing of restrictions, the Victorian Government, in mid-May, was entering a more delicate—and perhaps dangerous—period for the maintenance of social cohesion than is perhaps realized.
I doubt they could have averted the defiance of their edicts on public assembly and social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest on 6 June by easing restrictions earlier, but they certainly judged the balance poorly by waiting until the unlucky date of 26 May.
Like the potential energy contained in an explosive charge, the kinetic impetus to exercise freedom of movement rather more than was permitted after such strict containment, and for atomized agents all feeling this release simultaneously to come closer together than social distancing allowed, coincided with an historical event which had no relevance to Melbourne, but which activated the political and economic angst of people who were bored with the Coronavirus, who were sick of the ‘holiday from life’ it had foisted upon them, and who, having been shut up in their homes, had been successfully insulated from local scenes of horror similar to those in Italy which might have convinced them of its reality.
For these reasons, I would characterize the protest in Melbourne on 6 June as a ‘peaceful riot’;—for it was, if anything, a rebellion against the governmental repression of stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing.
It was peaceful in the sense that there was—mercifully—no violence or property damage such as occurred at other protests around the world, but it was a ‘riot’ in the sense that the participants mutinied against the Government’s restrictions on public assembly and social distancing as set forth in the COVIDSafe Roadmap.
Moreover, they defied the Government deliberately and with forethought, for they had two weeks, between 26 May and 6 June, to organize the protest.
To regard the protest at a deeper level of morphological recursion, it was a deliberate rebellion against the Coronavirus itself—an emphatic statement of disbelief in it by those who were not demographically vulnerable to it, and whose economic futures had been wrecked by the Government’s response to it.
When the decision was taken to stage that protest in Melbourne, it was as imitative an instance of viral incivility in a networked world as the behaviour of Melburnians had been an instance of viral civility a month earlier, when they had imitated the behaviour of Britons by protesting the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway from their doorsteps.
They had believed in the reality of the Coronavirus then, and the necessity to keep socially distant from one another even in a moment of communal grief and outrage. That belief had corroded by 6 June to the point where only a demonstration of overt repression on the Government’s part could have prevented the contravention of its edicts regarding social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest.
The morphological significance of that protest for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation in Melbourne has not been properly understood because commentary has addressed itself to the manifest content of the protest.
It is a mistake to regard the protest in Melbourne—or any of the worldwide protests which metastasized from the incident in Minneapolis—as anything other than an unconscious movement of people together who no longer believed in the invisible reason they had lately believed in as a legitimate reason to stay apart.
What actually happened in Melbourne on 6 June, I contend, is something in line with the historical principles that Tolstoy sets forth at the end of War and Peace—some unconscious, psycho-social transmission of memetic virality.
As Tolstoy argues in his account of the campaign of 1812, unconscious beliefs command masses, and so long as those beliefs hold, an army can be swept from Paris to Moscow, carrying all before it. But as soon as that common belief fails, as soon as a critical threshold of people no longer believe in the motive idea that was driving it, the social coherence of a people, their unity in decision and action, dissolves messily.
On 6 June, an unconscious decision was taken by a great mass of people in and around Melbourne to no longer believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the Coronavirus. They did so in deliberate, premeditated imitation of other people they had seen take this same unconscious decision in America because another belief had supplanted the Coronavirus in the hierarchy of urgency and importance through the viral memetic transmission of social media.
This was an example of the imitative behaviour which attends the viral metastasis of incivility in a networked world which is now preponderantly tending towards a Nash equilibrium of global chaos.
In the morphological view, the protest was merely a convenient cover for the global disbelief, the global doubt in the reality of this invisible enemy that beggars belief in its weird contradictions and requires too much undistracted patience to observe its reality as visible effects. It was the desperate searching for an excuse—any excuse at all—to shuck off the shackles of repressive restrictions and social distancing enjoined on restless people by governments they know do not have their best interests at heart.
Mr. Floyd’s unfortunate death provided a convenient excuse to get out of the house en masse.
Let us not read too deeply into the demographic makeup of attendees of the protest. Except on the dimension of age, I think it’s a much less important factor in why this event was so key to the lockdown of Melbourne a month later than the fact that a mass communal event which defied social distancing acted unconsciously to set a visible—and to some observers, legitimate—precedent for less and less social distancing in the month of June.
The rise in cases in northern and western Melbourne throughout that month is less a function of the protest per se than it is a consequence of the implicit licence that event gave to Melburnians to become (as the Premier said with understandable exasperation) ‘complacent’ in their attitude towards social distancing.
Until a vaccine is rolled out, control of this virus will always be a function of the population’s endogenous compliance with social distancing.
The particular virulence of outbreaks in northern and western parts of Melbourne—the City of Hume, the City of Brimbank, the City of Moreland—is in some part a function of socio-economic levels in the northern and western suburbs which have been inordinately affected.
Socio-economic level as a function of education implies that in conditions of enforced idleness where the only constant social contact is via a polluted cognitive commons undergoing a metastasis in psychosis, people in these communities are more vulnerable to paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives to the Government’s propaganda, and therefore less likely to heed or trust its haranguings about the need for social distancing.
And it is precisely in these lower socio-economic suburbs of Melbourne where a more casual attitude towards social distancing is likely to manifest itself as an increase in cases.
In my flâneries, I have had a wide experience of Melbourne and Victoria since the beginning of June. I’ve ventured into the City of Port Phillip and the City of Yarra; I’ve been to Sunbury, in the City of Hume; I was in Bacchus Marsh, in Moorabool Shire, at the time of the protest; and I’ve lately come back from Sale, in Wellington Shire.
In greater Melbourne, at least, my anecdotal observation in June and July was that, wherever I went, people had utterly abandoned the idea of social distancing. It’s been rather vexing to endure people trying to sit in your lap while you’re standing up the last several weeks, practically draping themselves over you like a mink stole as you wait at traffic lights.
In the acceleration of the media cycle, the Coronavirus, in the minds of Melburnians, was ‘over’ weeks ago.
By means of online viral incivility, the outrageousness of the death of Mr. Floyd hijacked a sufficient threshold of attention in this economy of distraction as to push the Coronavirus down the news feed in people’s minds.
My prediction is that the next phase shift, the next level of metastasis that the Coronavirus will undergo is as a tool of overt coercion and repression by governments around the world. In Australia, at least, our Government had a honeymoon period of trust with people which had more to do with self-interest than goodwill towards the Government: as long as people believed their lives to be threatened by this invisible foe, they were prepared to go along with the repressive measures prescribed.
But as Professor Liam Smith, a behavioural psychologist at Monash University who has been advising the Victorian Government, stated on the ABC’s 7:30 program, it is probable that we will see lower levels of compliance with a second lockdown in Melbourne.
This is because people are exhausted and bored with this pandemic, which is no longer a novel experience, and in their distractibility, their minds have become hardened and resistant to the Government’s message of social distancing.
Having heard Mr. Andrews’ uninspiring rhetoric all before, they’re tuning ‘Lurch’ out this time around.
Throughout human history, institutional authorities have used invisible beliefs to coerce endogenous compliance with their policies in the populations they govern. The principle is that the belief is invisible but immanent within the population: the evil walks among us. It is probably even within our own hearts and minds.
But unlike ‘the Devil’ in medieval times, the threat of ‘Communism’ during the Cold War, the threat of ‘terrorism’ after 9/11, or even the threat of systemic ‘racism’ that has undergone a phase shift in metastasis since the death of Mr. Floyd, the Coronavirus is the most ‘made-to-order’ invisible belief that governments have had to coerce endogenous compliance from their populations in a long time, because unlike the examples cited, the actual mortality of this invisible belief means that there is less room for doubt and plausible deniability by naysayers.
Moreover, if you don’t think the Coronavirus is a carpet-bagging gold rush on coercive data collection, another tool by governments to track and surveil your movements each time you enter a shop or sit down at a café, you’re not thinking about the long-term ramifications of the short-term justifications for ‘contact tracing’.
I’ll wager that the next front in the metastasis of the Coronavirus as an invisible belief to justify coercive endogenous compliance is the wearing of masks.
Just as a global dissolution of credulity in the Coronavirus began in America with the unfortunate death of Mr. Floyd, we already begin to see that societal fault-line manifesting itself in America. While the Victorian Government hasn’t made the wearing of masks mandatory, the Premier leant the colour of his support to the wearing of masks over the weekend.
As an identitarian flag identifying those who subscribe to the faith and those who don’t, the wearing or not wearing of masks, I wager, will soon become weaponized as another convenient tool of governments to divide populations and keep them distracted from the carpet-bagging data-grab. Mask-wearers will be suborned by their sense of duty into policing the infidels, shaming them into compliance through viral incivility on social media.
That’s my bet. Anyone care to take that action?
As Coronavirus restrictions ease, today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I get out and about for the first time in two months, taking a flânerie to Bacchus Marsh.
Don’t be deceived by the boggy name: Bacchus Marsh is actually quite a nice place to visit, particularly at the start of winter, when all the trees along Grant street, leading from the station to the township, set up an arcade of red and yellow leaves for you to amble under.
At Maddingley Park, I take a breather at the rotunda to share with you a sneak preview of the manuscript for my next book—a 31-page handwritten letter to my seven-year-old niece, which I wrote during lockdown.
As soon as things got too hairy on the streets, your Melbourne Flâneur, that aristocrat of the gutter, folded up pack, shack and stack and got his handmade Italian brogues parked in more private and stable accommodation than he is used to treating himself to.
For two months, I was sequestered in a West Melbourne hotel room, my world reduced to a single window looking out on a narrow sliver of upper King street. If I crowded into the left side of the window and craned my neck, I could entertain myself by trying to work out on what streets all the tall buildings in the Melbourne CBD were planted.
To say (as I do in the video) that I felt like I was in a ‘gilded prison’ is not to deprecate the kind folks at the Miami Hotel, who I’m very happy to recommend to any visitors to our fair city, but rather to suggest what a strange and vivid time it was to be a writer of a peripatetic persuasion, one who finds his home in the crowd.
In Australia, in the early days of the lockdown, we saw scenes of people returning from overseas being bundled and bullied into suites at Crown, on the government’s tab, and exercising, like les bons bourgeois that they are, their privilege to grouse on Instagram that their confinement in palatial conditions was not up to scratch.
These people enjoyed little sympathy from me. As a writer, the argument that such palatial prison conditions were doing a permanent injury to their mental health cut no ice. Rather, if the mental health of people forced to enjoy such self-isolation at Her Majesty’s expense deteriorates, it is evidence of how little developed are the mental resources of a chattering class to whom every ease and privilege is given in a society that clamours after more and more leisure aided and abetted by technology.
Harsh words, I’ll admit, but as a writer, I found my more modest confinement at the Miami a unique historical privilege which reconnected me with the ancient heritage of my craft and profession.
As soon as I was undercover, as those of you who followed my commentary on the Coronavirus crisis know, fearing the worst, I went straight to work and tried to scratch out every idea and cobble together every piece of research I could find in an effort to make good sense of what the continental was going on outside my little room.
For reasons of historical precedent I’ll explain, I felt—and feel—that the moral responsibility of the writer in a time of crisis is to throw the skills of his profession at the task of collective sensemaking.
And so, while my confrères at Crown faffed and fapped on Facebook and engaged in other acts of mental masturbation with their mobiles, I wrote.
And in fact, apart from penning six long articles on the Coronavirus (which, collectively, could constitute a book on their own), I wrote an entire book—five drafts in two months—for my little niece, attempting to explain the situation to her.
The fifth and final draft takes the form of a 31-page handwritten letter to my niece. It took 25 hours to write, and you can see in the video what the entire manuscript looks like. When spread out in three rows across a table capable of comfortably seating eight people, the manuscript is still wider than the tabletop.
It was an extraordinary experience to ‘write a book by hand’. I thought, when I sat down to handwrite the final draft, that it was simply going to be a ‘copy job’, that I was not going to add anything new or creative to what I had worked up in the previous four drafts.
But when I got in front of the first page of my personalised stationery, when I had my two Montblanc Noblesse fountain pens (one filled with Mystery Black, the other with Corn Poppy Red ink) primed, the experience of committing myself to the words I intended to publish felt like no other book I have written.
Suddenly, the page became a ‘stage’ for me. I was on the stage, and this was the performance. The four previous drafts were mere ‘rehearsals’ for the Big Night, and having learnt my ‘script’, I felt free to improvise upon it, to add and change things as I spontaneously wrote the message of hope and support I intended to communicate to my niece.
Sometimes my eyes even filled with tears as I wrote.
If you know what a ‘Flaubertian’ writer I am, how much I bleed to get a single word onto the page that I am even provisionally satisfied with, you can imagine what an experience it is to write a book that is a ‘spontaneous performance’, where the words I ultimately committed myself to as the words I intended to say for all time to my niece about the Coronavirus, about the rôle of technology in human development, about the future of her generation, were as ‘humanly imperfect’ as only the words of a handwritten letter can be.
If you’re intrigued to know what I had to say to my niece, I give you a sample of the first few pages in the video above.
And it’s not simply the fact that the ‘spontaneity’ of a handwritten letter gives the book a sense of the ‘humanly imperfect’;—it’s in the fact of writing the text by hand itself.
It’s hard to remember, at our technological remove, that for most of human history, most writers have actually written—by hand. No typewriters, and certainly no computers. Truman Capote’s disparaging remark of Jack Kerouac—‘That’s not writing; that’s just typing’—could, regrettably, be applied to most so-called ‘writers’ of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This isn’t merely an élitist distinction. There’s a qualitatively different experience to writing a complex work by hand. The genius-level cognitive co-ordination of hand, eye and brain that James Joyce and Marcel Proust enjoyed would not have produced the greatest novels of the 20th century if these gents had been trained to peck out their thoughts—even at the touch-typist level of virtuosity—rather than guide a fountain pen fluidly across a page.
Moreover, I don’t think it’s coincidental that James Ellroy, who I regard as the greatest living writer, works a mano, has never used a computer, and reportedly doesn’t own a mobile phone. This is a man who eschews distraction and espouses deep focus. The density of his plotting and the inventiveness of his language are testaments to the profound cognitive relationship between writing by hand and the capacity to compass complexity through the abstract symbology of written language.
And though I often get compliments on my handwriting, when I look in awe at the handsome copperplate of some 18th- and 19th-century writers, so perfect-seeming and consistent as to appear to be machine-etched, I feel like the Queensland Modern Cursive of the words I have committed to the page for all time in this book are less ‘elegant’ than I should have liked my niece to read.
But, en revanche, writing a book where the final printed text will be ‘by my own hand’—in the most literal sense—gave me a feeling of reconnecting to the ancient art of my profession—dating back to those scribes whose elegant calligraphy has communicated such ancient books as Genji Monogatari down through ten centuries to us.
We’re too acclimatized to the profound revolution in writing which Gutenberg’s invention of movable type opened up for us nearly 600 years ago. We don’t remember that most books—the Bible or Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry—were handwritten, illuminated manuscripts. Our over-familiarity with type and font, the uniformity of letters and ‘standardization’ of print, has fundamentally changed the nature of what we mean, in the 21st century, by the word ‘writing’, forgetting that machine-printed words are not, as Truman Capote observed, writing at all (in the sense of creative human agency), but typing.
And so, although my handwriting in this book is less than consistent from first page to last, the letters being less ‘uniform’ and ‘standard’ than we are used to expect in a book made since Gutenberg’s time, I quite like the notion of having written a book for my niece which I hope will have the feel of an illuminated manuscript, like an ancient spiritual text, something that connects her, in this hour of crisis for humanity, with all the crises the generations of humanity have endured before her.
For it’s equally hard to remember, let alone imagine, in the 21st century, that most human beings have not known how to read or to write. The profession of ‘scribe’ has always been a noble one—at least until the failed experiment of universal education depreciated it.
If any subtle message might be shaken out of the long articles I wrote on the Coronavirus during lockdown, perhaps it is the conviction that, in the most educated era that humanity has never known, this unnecessary débâcle could—and should—have been avoided. That it wasn’t can be laid squarely at the feet of universal education, which has manifestly failed to realize its promise of making each successive generation more intelligent and engaged with the world than the last.
When you master written language, your capacity to verbally reason, to accurately perceive and interpret the pattern within chaotic events, is increased. If you can write, if you can corral your thoughts in words, you become profoundly dangerous.
Is it any wonder that writers are always the first folks to be housed in the hoosegow when some authoritarian jefe comes to power?
It’s for this reason that the art of the scribe was kept out of the paws of the plebs for so many centuries. To write—to really write—is to think, and I look with disgust—for my niece’s sake—upon a world where people are increasingly put through sixteen to twenty years of formal education and yet are still peasants in their thinking, giving no more evidence of being able to marshal and master their thoughts in a coherent, complex, logical argument than our magickal-thinking forebears.
As I say to my niece in the book, we are no more ‘advanced’ than our earliest ancestors. It is simply that we are habituated to more complicated conditions of life.
The lockdown was a period when it was easy—too easy—for people to succumb to boredom and ennui, to indulge digitally in the lassitude and laziness which is the Shadow of our speed-mad species. Prey to ‘the vultures of the mind’, undistracted by our manifold distractions, and oppressed by the very leisure that we clamour for, most people probably tried to drown themselves all the more in the delusive fakery and shallow abyss of screens during their ‘holiday from life’.
But—thank God—I am a writer, which means I was not wigged out at being locked in a hotel room with only my thoughts for company for two months. Like William Blake, through my self-isolation I had mental health and mental wealth to sustain me. Instead of seeking distraction, I was able to pour out the very resources of thought as ink onto paper.
Most writers, I realized as I stood at my window, looking, it seemed, at an invisible tempest swirling through the streets of Melbourne, have lived in times of profound chaos and unrest. The privilege of education, the noble calling of their profession, enjoins upon them the moral responsibility to be ‘a witness to chaos’.
Whether natural disasters have disrupted the times they live in, or whether their societies have undergone enormous upheavals due to war or political division, the writer is the ‘journalist’, the faithful witness and reporter on ‘what life was like’ at these moments of history.
If you can write, by which I mean, if you can really think; if you have mastered, through the long apprenticeship of education, the abstract symbology of written language to the point where you can make dexterous calculations in the algebra of verbal reasoning, you cannot stand idly by at these moments, but the capacity to think, to reason, to explore ideas through language, and ultimately to shed some clarity on chaos by writing down the formula, the pattern of order you perceive in the disorder swirling all around you, is a moral mission arising from the competency of your professional cognitive skills.
As I stood at the window of my cell, I felt connected, in some spiritual way, with some of the great writers of history whose lives have passed in the midst of chaos. Somehow their handwritten words have survived earthquakes, wars and plagues to guide humanity because some clarity in their delicate perceptions was worth preserving, despite the rending chaos which could easily have torn their words in shreds and scattered them to the winds.
Particularly, I felt a connection to that writer who is one of the most astute calculators of chaos in human affairs, il gran’ signor Machiavelli. Many a time I stood at my window in those two months, blind, like Mr. Kurtz, to what I was looking at as I meditated on the horror of our time and the fears I have for my little niece’s future, and I felt like the divine, diabolical Niccolò avidly surveying the carnage of Florence as it continually changed hands.
He, I knew, would have loved to have been alive in this moment of global upheaval and naked power grabs.
This is not a situation I would wish on my niece. But just as I feel privileged to have lived through such a crisis myself, I also think it’s a good thing for her to have experienced a world-historical event like a global pandemic so early in her life, and I hope the words I am going to give to her shortly will equally stand as an experiential guide for her going forward, something that will help to orient her as this event has done.
I am now at the design and layout stage, so the book will shortly be available for sale in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a copy when it becomes available, you can do so by dropping me a line via the Contact form, and I’ll be sure to get in touch with you as soon as it is ready for release.