Monday, September 24, 2012

While grumpy Paul Sheehan berates NSW Liberals, the pond goes on a McMansion tour of ancient Athens with Chris Berg of the IPA ...

(Above: modern members of the polis thumbing their noses at Aristotle).

So what dire apocalyptic announcement of doom has Paul "generally grumphy" Sheehan got for the world this monday?

Well it turns out in Lid lifted on NSW black box that Sheehan is very specifically grumpy with the NSW Liberal party and its machinations, naming names, and comparing the Liberals to the state of state Labor not so long ago.

The piece even opens with a Nikita Khrushchev "we will bury you moment" in relation to Tony Abbott:

Last month Tony Abbott was given a blunt warning, by phone, from a senior member of the Liberal Party. According to notes of the conversation taken by an exceptionally reliable member of the Abbott inner circle (which is not a euphemism for Abbott), this was the warning:
''If you insist on supporting these motions there will be World War III. We will blow the division up from underneath you. You will lose the [next] election.'' 

World War III. So there's your apocalypse!

Sheehan seems to have invented a term - "black box politics" - to describe the phenomenon of feuding Liberals, because no amount of googling could turn up a similar use of the phrase.

It seems like a mash-up of the use of black box concepts in science and engineering (here), or perhaps an appropriation of black box theory or perhaps an appropriation of the black box in aviation.

Whatever, you can spend endless fun hours romping through wiki disambiguations for uses of "black box" and completely forget the navel-gazing of Sheehan as he contemplates the arcane world of warring Liberals.

This is a happy way to start the week, because reading Sheehan is usually a recipe for existential alienation and angst, and a brooding sense that everything is futile because disaster will land by Friday. Possibly even World War III ...

It also gives the pond a chance to do a little detour and explore the joys of Chris Berg's indignant celebration of McMansions in McMansions: why Aussies are lovin' it.

It's only a day old, but already the subbies at The Age have stripped it out of the National Times opinion pieces, and sent it off to the graveyard.

Which is a pity, because it opens with this memorable line:

Is there any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than ''McMansion''?

Of course if you scurry off to the wiki on McMansions  it seems pretty clear cut that the word was coined in the United States, before drifting down under. In which case perhaps Berg should have opened with:

Is there any more a pathetic indication of the way the Australian vocabulary has been subject to American imperialism and American ideas, and the home building industry subject to tawdry, pathetic American building practices than in the concept of McMansions? Go home Uncle Sam, and tarry at the door of the IPA no longer as you traduce proud Aussie mateship with snobbish words and hideous inelegant vulgar buildings...

Happily Australian McMansions are a good ten per cent bigger than similar American attempts at conspicuous consumption, which leads Berg to another insight:

... The size of our houses is, by itself, evidence that Australia is well off.

Which leads the pond to await anxiously for Berg's next column:

The size of a man's penis is, by itself, certain evidence that a woman will be well off and well satisfied coupling with the beast.

Berg is distraught at the way smart-arse academics give McMansions and their occupants a hard time:

Terry Burke, a professor of urban studies at Swinburne University, wrote in The Conversation last year that McMansions breach the ''good principles'' of environmental sustainability. Fair enough. But Professor Burke doubled down: McMansions are very ugly and their occupants, who also apparently own four-wheel drives and send their children to private schools, are giving ''an 'up yours' message to the world''. That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon. The word McMansion is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life. It is all about culture - the inner-city world trying to understand their strange, alien, suburban cousins.

Alien, strange? It so happens that the pond has a McMansion in the extended family. For reasons best known to themselves, the sister- and brother-in-law bought an old house, knocked it down and put up a classic example of the McMansion genre.

And that's why Berg has to shift ground, turning the conversation from environmental sustainability to lifestyle and culture questions.

Because however you look at them, McMansions - even ones "architect-designed" tend to make an inefficient mess of the internal spaces, and are a bitch to heat and cool (and help explain why electricity prices have soared in recent times to cope with peak air-conditioning demand). They also tend to be planted in small allotments so that backyards disappear, except of course for essential space for a pool.

Berg is so desperate to redeem McMansions that he conflates the building with lifestyle and the ACF Conservation Atlas ( eagerly seized on for the Residential Development Council in a report here in pdf form):

... suburban living in general is more environmentally friendly than inner-city living. A study conducted by the Australian Conservation Foundation (no fans of consumer capitalism) concluded that, even taking into account car use, ''inner-city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption''.

Uh huh. But that was a study in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, and it's necessary to ask which inner-city households in which suburbs. Of course Malcolm Turnbull conspicuously consumes in the eastern suburbs, and there's a fair bet that Tony Abbott's and Bronnie Bishop's mates on the lower north shore do the same.

And you can bet their houses will be large. It's just that they won't be McMansions, they'll be solidly built, and if inclined to pretension, with discreet Graeco-Roman facades, instead of the half-baked imitations of deluded provincials.

Anyhoo, a bit of this deft shuffling leads Berg to conclude:

Someone who lives in a big home can still take the train to work, can still conserve energy or water and can, if they choose, live a fashionably carbon-neutral life. 

Take the train to work? Clearly Berg doesn't live in Sydney ...

So why build a big house? The pond, like others, isn't immune to the notion of a billiards room, a table tennis room, a home cinema room, a television room, a games room, an indoor basketball and squash court, a spa and sauna room, a brats room, and storage for fifty vintage cars.

But it turns out it's simply because we can, and never mind that 99% trying to live like the 1% in Dubai or in the Hollywood hills might cause a little environmental damage along the way:

Why do we build our houses so big? Well, Australia has a lot of space. But more importantly: we can. 

Yep, we can, so just do it, do it for the Treasurer, do it for the IPA, do it for builders and developers, just do it. Flaunt your wealth in an ostentatious way, and never mind the snobs who label you a nouveau-riche yobbo:

Australia is probably the richest country in the world. We have the fastest-growing income in the world. We have the highest median wealth. Our only real competition in the rich stakes comes from city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong or oil plutocracies such as Qatar. And many Australians have decided to spend their riches on nice new homes. 

Yep, never mind that Dubai is a monstrosity, remember that money is everything, and if you've got the cash, you have to go the splash. Wait a second, newsflash:

Prosperity is about more than GDP data. Money isn't everything. 

Ah wait, money isn't everything. So if money isn't everything, but you need the money to build, you have to mortgage yourself up to the hilt, to the point perhaps where you might lose the house to the bank, and or at least have a nervous breakdown each time an electricity bill arrives. That way you can truly enjoy the free-wheeling Australian suburban lifestyle.

Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows that living standards and adequate space are closely related.

Lordy, lordy, suddenly the pond is filled with anxiety over Chris Berg's past life. Was he a humble student crammed into a rathole while he studied hard to join the IPA, and is now suffused with resentment?

For what it's worth, the pond lives in a terrace. It's an ice box in winter, and it's a sauna in summer. With its gingerbread gothic wrought iron, it was the McMansion of its day. But here's the difference. It's currently 126 years young, and it'll outlive the pond and a few other occupants before it's done (the bombing of Iran permitting).

It's hard to imagine a lot of the tasteless, gaudy, gimcrack geegaws currently being flung up in the American ticky tack style lasting more than thirty years before they need either a major refit or demolition and replacement (in the American throwaway style).

In his desperate desire to justify urban sprawl and development of any kind, inappropriate or hideous, Berg doesn't pause for balance.

Instead, in an act of profound desperation, Berg resorts to archaeology and ancient Greece to provide the ultimate justification:

Antiquity had its share of sceptics about prosperity, too. Aristotle believed there was such a thing as too much wealth. The philosopher had determined what the ''good life'' was and argued any excess property was unnatural. 
It's easy to imagine Aristotle tut-tutting the big houses built by his fellow Athenians. 
But it's just as easy to imagine those Athenians ignoring his snobbery and enjoying the prosperity Greek society could afford.

Uh huh. So where's the prosperity of Greek society these days Mr. Berg? How much can it afford?

Come to think of it, where are the Greek mansions, excluding the ones that end up in British, American and German museums?

So what's the real point of the rant? Well as you'd expect from an IPA scribbler, it's that consumerism is most excellent, and conspicuous consumption is truly excellent, and don't worry about tomorrow when you can enter into a huge mortgage today, and moderate-income families can now live an ostentatious lifestyle out in the boondocks and as usual it's all the fault of sniggering, snickering inner-city elites for deriding bogans rather than celebrating their hair cuts ...

Or some such thing. It's so predictable and fatuous that it quite made the pond's day, and hopefully it will make your day as well as you set off on your two hour commute into the city as you live out your fashionable carbon-neutral life.

Though why you bother must remain a mystery, because in another column Chris Berg will be on hand to remind you that the IPA is a nest of climate science deniers, and there's no need to worry about any of that nonsense as you become a new Athenian in your wonderful polis poking your tongue out at the Aristotelian nattering misery guts who mock their relatives for living in a gigantic barn ...

But hang on a tic. Were those wretched Greeks as Chris Berg proposes. Or were they deviant perverted socialists at heart?

The peculiar laws and customs of the Greeks at the time of their greatest prosperity were not calculated to encourage display or luxury in private life, or the collection of sumptuous furniture. Their manners were simple and their discipline was very severe. Statuary, sculpture of the best kind, painting of the highest merit—in a word, the best that art could produce—were all dedicated to the national service in the enrichment of Temples and other public buildings, the State having indefinite and almost unlimited power over the property of all wealthy citizens. The public surroundings of an influential Athenian were therefore in direct contrast to the simplicity of his home, which contained the most meagre supply of chairs and tables, while the chef d'oeuvres of Phidias adorned the Senate House, the Theatre, and the Temple. (more here).

Sheesh, did they need the IPA or what? Because it's just so easy to imagine the Spartans in a McMansion...

(Below: vulgar ancient Greek housing thumbing its nose at Aristotle).


  1. Penis size is determined by genetics. As are tendencies to criminality and communism. These may be zombie facts, to be thrown around by the cranks & crazies, but they are facts all the same. So, we may as well throw in welfare dependency as further proof that one should carefully choose the sire of one's offspring.
    If I may, it was who got to the Masha Gessen story on Sep 11, well before the ABC.
    Masters' Sep 17 broadcast is worth listening to for
    Then finally we speak with a close friend and colleague of Glen Doherty, the former SEAL who died protecting the U.S. Ambassador to Libya from jihadis who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. Mikey Weinstein the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, joins us to discuss Glen Doherty’s other battle against religious fanatics, his fight to stop a fundamentalist Christian coup within the U.S. Armed Forces.

  2. The link you provided to ancient Greek house design is fascinating, Dorothy. It's interesting how exactly it accords with modern ideas about sustainable, energy-efficient, solar passive design ...

  3. It's kind of a pity that some of the finest farmland in places like Redlands shire is now under chipboard and mortar, but, hey trash has got to be flash!

  4. Now now, this talk of sensible efficient buildings, perhaps with a dash of style and flair and structural integrity is deeply offensive. If you accept that McDonalds presents gourmet food, then surely McMansions represent gourmet architecture. As for food, we'll come to love soylent green ,...


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