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Operation Covid-19: ‘Resilient & Agile’

Philistines have entered the gate

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison came naturally to philistinism. It was easier than dealing with real world complexity and reason


TUMBY BAY - A philistine is a person of narrow mind, populist morality, materialistic views and lack of interest in art and literature.

The term was coined by the 19th Century British poet, Matthew Arnold, adapting the word from the term ‘philister’ used by German university students to describe people who were unenlightened, uncultured and anti-intellectual.

Contrary to popular belief there is no connection, beyond the odd misplaced rhetorical flourish, to the ancient Philistine’s of the Old Testament and their war against the Israelites.

The politicians of Papua New Guinea can be rightly called philistines.

This is demonstrated by their total lack of interest in literature and writers – and the arts for that matter.

Unless presumably there is some money to be made.

That said, we in Australia cannot be smug.

Our current federal government has proven itself to be just as philistine as the politicians of Papua New Guinea.

Recently we have had the education minister Dan Tehan proposing radical changes to the funding of university courses which will see a more than doubling of the cost of an arts degree.

His deeply flawed reasoning is based on the erroneous belief that people with an arts degree are less employable and less useful than people with science and engineering degrees and will not assist in any economic resurgence following the Covid-19 pandemic.

By adopting such philistine reasoning, Tehan is ignoring the evidence and advice from the business community who appreciate the diverse skills that arts graduates bring to their companies.

While Tehan is wielding his axe, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is struggling to make ends meet after another savage cut to its budget as part of a vendetta the government has long been perpetuating against the organisation.

These are just the latest battlefronts of the Australian government’s philistine agenda - that also includes defunding many arts organisations and, as part of its economic stimulus measures following the Covid-19 crisis, initially refusing to support individuals working in the arts.

As far as the Australian government is concerned Australian culture doesn’t revolve around the arts but finds expression in such things as football, reality TV and celebration of military conflict.

But that’s not the real reason why both the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments are pursuing their philistine agendas.

Their real reason is a deep suspicion and fear of people who think for themselves.

These people include journalists, writers, musicians, artists, working class intellectuals, academics and people who don’t see making a buck as the be-all and end-all of their existence.

These politicians fear people who can see through their devious machinations and their dubious relationships to the darker and more venal sides of society.

HitchensIn particular, they don’t like criticism. Criticism doesn’t only challenge their power but it dents their inflated egos. In this sense Australian and PNG politicians are not much different to authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world.

And if you don’t believe that is true you won’t believe that they are using things like national security to shut down criticism and silence pesky journalists, writers, lawyers, human rights groups and people, no matter their background, who think for themselves.

What we really have to do if we want any of this to change is to stop electing politicians who exhibit philistine tendencies, be it getting around in sporting team caps or playing golf while ignoring a promise to spend a few minutes talking to a delegation of writers.


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Arthur Williams

I think Phil, in asking for PNG’s politicians to be more favourably inclined towards literature and writing, has ignored the basic fact of PNG historically had neither literature nor writing; it was an illiterate society.

However each community had a treasury of stories many of which had been handed down for generations to become legends or myths.

It is these stories that are a delight to anthropologists as they have suggested that though considered mere myths, such as Britain’s King Arthur, in them there can be found useful information of events not available in any written form in PNG.

When Europe was mostly illiterate being a good story teller was often part of a jesters CV that would get him a job for life with a rich family.

On one recent TV antiques show we were shown around a very sumptuous old country house that was full of the usual portrait paintings of the lords and ladies who had once lived there. The unique portrait was of the house’s resident jester. The presenter was unable to give a valid reason as to why this lowly man should have been granted the honour.

It has been suggested that a jester was one of the few people who could tell his employer of some terrible event that would affect the family tranquillity. I liked one instance I read in Wikipedia: In 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys by the English, Phillippe VI's jester told him the English sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French"

The main art of PNG of course is that of carving. The whole nation seems to have produced skilled wood workers.

My wife’s Malangan Masks are often the centrepiece for museums worldwide in their Pacific galleries. The Gogodala produced beautiful carved clan totems to enhance their redwood canoes. One of the canoes I helped ship to Moresby for hanging in the new PNGBC building. I wonder what happened to it.

At the extreme northerly distant from Balimo is the tiny atoll of Kaniet where I lived for a few months in 2008. In a New York museum is a Kaniet ‘finola’ which is a miniature beautifully carved canoe once carried as a sort of basket by that tribe extinct since start of the 20th century. They may have been more Micronesian than Melanesian.

There are some samples extant of stone carving including the funeral stone heads found in the Rabaul area. Mind a crafty craftsman was flogging reproductions there to the gullible tourist in the 80s much to the annoyance of a local missionary who thought he’d cornered the antique market.

Body art including face painting amaze any tourists who come to PNG. The scarification on the backs of Sepik men cannot fail to amaze you and you can see the cult of the crocodile in those marks executed traditionally very painfully with sharpened bamboo.

The colourful wigmen of the Huli are quite well known beyond their homeland. It is of course during the sing-sings throughout the country that one can see the amazing designs, traditional clothing, masks, traditional songs all to the beat of small or huge home-made drums. Generally there will be a jester too to make the audiences smile.

If you were stuck in employment in Moresby once a year you could see the traditional cultures of every province when the Sogeri National High School performed in the local arena.

I think we must realise the pen or now the keyboard has opened a new era in the artistic life of PNG. Guess that is what Phil. Meant that there is not much support for writing by the administration. It seems that whenever possible people must copy the efforts of Phil, Keith and others who in 2011 promoted The Crocodile Prize. There are similar competitions such as:

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2000 – 5000 words). It is open to translated fiction. The overall winner receives £5,000 and regional winners receive £2,500. Translators will receive additional prize money.

The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition has a Seniors 14-18 year olds and Under-14 categories. Been organised since 1883. Details for 2021 to be announced. www.thercs.org

A Guide to Short Story Contests in 2020 has good list for this year writers. Some for specific countries others open to worldwide entries. www.aerogrammestudio.com

Bernard Corden

Q. What's the difference between an Australian wedding and an Australian funeral?

A. There is one less drunk at the funeral.

Philip Fitzpatrick

So you guys agree with $14,000 art degrees?

Which is the crux of the article.

I imagine the universities like the idea too. They'll be out recruiting arts students because they'll get a bigger cut of the pie. I think that's called a government backfire.

Chris Overland

While I agree with your reasoning Phil, the problem is that many, perhaps most, Australians are Philistines themselves.

This may seem a very unkind comment, but the evidence clearly points in that direction.

The immense popularity of so-called reality television (The Bachelor, Love Island, etc) and much other similar low quality material is a case in point.

What might be termed "high" art and culture such as Symphony Orchestras, Opera, Ballet and so forth have always been the preserve of the relatively wealthy and, generally speaking, more highly educated segment of the community.

Of course, there is a terrible lot of snobbery and intellectual wankery involved in this sector, hence the inexplicable admiration given to often very mediocre offerings in high art, not to mention the obscene amounts of money sometimes offered for objects d'art of no real or enduring merit.

Also, there is a lot in so-called popular culture that is actually rather good, including material that I would describe as cross over art, that straddles both popular and high art..

In a political context, most Australian politicians these days hold some sort of post secondary qualifications, with many being university educated.

The problems you have mentioned are not Philistinism per se, but the triumph of ideology or outright prejudice over evidence and the objective facts.

One of the enduring mysteries about human beings is their ability to wilfully cling to ideas about the world that have no basis in fact. People will literally die for such ideas and certainly kill for them.

For example, the conservative side of politics is obsessed with the idea that the ABC is a hotbed of left wing activists, who are always out to denigrate them and their ideals.

This translates directly into their attempts to stifle the ABC with relentless budget cuts.

They conveniently forget when the ABC pursued their political opponents with the same determination and vigour because this does not suit their narrative.

They would cheerfully privatise the ABC if they did not know for certain this would lead to their immediate political deaths.

The public confer a degree of immunity on the ABC because they have long made it plain they trust it much, much more than the political class.

The truth is that the ABC as a corporate entity pursues the truth, preferring objective reality (in so far as this is knowable) to the spin, evasion and occasional lies that are the stock in trade of our political class.

Anyway, Philistinism will always be with us as long as people love their football, meat pies, kangaroos and Korean cars (all of which I like too).

Having dealt with both sides of politics as the ABC's chief political liaison operative in the 1980s, I can firmly vouch for Chris's assessment that the party in government always detests the ABC's speaking truth to power with as much enthusiasm as the party in opposition applauds it - KJ

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