Monthly Archives: July 2015

Adam Goodes and why we should soften the f*** up

There have been a great many eloquent, thoughtful and impassioned pieces defending Adam Goodes and calling out the racism of those who boo him and (more disgracefully) those in the media who defend those who boo him. There are also large numbers of peoplgoodese better qualified than me to unpick what this says about Australia and its attitude to race in general and indigenous people in particular. I doubt I could contribute much to that, and in trying I’d almost certainly just be adding to the canon of columns (full to bursting) under the loose heading I Am A Heterosexual Middle Aged White Man and I Have Opinions.

So I wasn’t going to say or do anything about the disgusting treatment of Goodes, apart from possibly go and see Geelong vs Sydney next Saturday in the hopes Goodes would run out and I could cheer him doing so.

Except I’ve noticed a theme to the facebook posts, media comments and inter-cubicle work banter that isn’t just about race, or at least is about the intersection of race and masculinity in Australia, how we treat our young men and how we expect them to respond to this treatment.

Grow some balls. Take a teaspoon of cement. Man up. Stop being a sook. Cry me a fucking river. Suck it up princess. Harden the fuck up.

The grandmother of the 13 year old girl who called Goodes an ape during the 2014 indigenous round had this to say about Goode’s recent treatment:

“If he hadn’t have carried on like a pork chop it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t think he should retire, he should man up and just take it if he wants to play the game.”

If it’s true that you can learn a lot about a culture from its vernacular, Australians in particular put a premium on men suffering in silence.

Dermott Brereton, former hard man of the VFL, has said Goodes should look at his own behaviour to see why people are booing him. Brereton famously played and won the 1989 Grand Final with a bruised kidney, broken ribs, punctured lung and internal bleeding.

As Hawthorn physio Barry Gavern remembers it, “He’d lost all the color in his face and was vomiting. He’d dragged himself back on his feet by this stage. But he was doubled over, dry-retching and his color was grey… There was no way he could stay out there. I remember looking up at [Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans] in the box and starting to try to get him off. Dermott said, ‘No, no. Just get me down to the pocket’.

When we tell Adam Goodes that he should suck it up, when we valorise Brereton’s boneheaded stubbornness, we send a message to young men to suffer in silence. And it’s worse for men of colour, who are expected to put up with more and complain less. Nick Kyrgios was on to this when he responded to Dawn Fraser’s racist comments about his behaviour with, “Throwing a racket, brat. Debating the rules, disrespectful. Frustrated when competing, spoilt. Showing emotion, arrogant.”

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that men have it tough. There has never been a better time to be a man. You get paid more on average, you have the perks of male privilege and you don’t even have to shave. You are less likely than at any other time in our industrial history to die at work. I don’t buy in to any talk of “masculinity in crisis” and certainly not men’s rights.

But giving young men the licence and the vocabulary to show vulnerability, to say, “you hurt my feelings” would make life better for everyone, women included.

The former Age columnist Mark Dapin has written that if his old school, North London Jewish father had sat him down and told him that he loved him, he would have genuinely thought that Dad had lost his marbles. Yet there are young men and women growing up now who know their fathers love and value them because their Dads have told them so. That’s progress.

But there’s still an expectation that men, especially athletes, shouldn’t show vulnerability and certainly shouldn’t express it. Enforcing the prohibition on expressing such feelings does permanent damage. Women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety yet men are less likely to seek help and represent 80% of suicides.

Adam Goodes has given a lot to this country. It should be ok for him to say he feels undervalued, without someone telling him to grow a pair. It should be ok for him to say it hurts his feelings when he’s booed. I mean, why wouldn’t it?

It’s time for us to soften the fuck up.

David Bowie Is: “…you’re not alone.”

The word chameleon is often used about Bowie. Here he is in full glam regalia. Here he is in white soul crooner mode, slicked back hair and skinny tie. Sixties folk enfant. Berlin-era avant.

It’s an entirely understandable confusion. Through a 2015 lens, it’s hard to tell if Bowie ch-ch-changed to suit the times or if the times adapted to him. His influence is as pervasive as it is (seemingly) effortless and the hanging verb in the title David Bowie Is reflects this brilliantly.

David Bowie Is opened last Thursday and I was there Friday night. I loved every minute of it, for the exhibition itself; for the gay, straight and trans crowd out in force; and for the memories, long unbidden, of the role Bowie played in my own journey to adulthood.

David Bowie has said hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti for the first time was like hearing, “the voice of God.” I saw Bowie well before I properly heard him. He had a double-paged spread in my dog-eared copy of the Billboard Encyclopedia of Rock, from which I memorised every image, every phase of Bowiedom.

I was 13, growing up without a Dad in my daily life and just beginning to understand myself as a sexual person. I don’t know if I knew I was heterosexual at that point because, unlike my gay friends, I’ve never been asked when I realised I was straight. But I knew I wasn’t like the other kids and I knew the version of masculinity I was expected to emulate wasn’t me. I hated organised sports, more for the way they enforced the social pecking order than for my lack of mastery. I hadn’t yet learned to moderate my smart mouth so I was always in trouble with my teacher. I liked Orwell, the poetry of Auden and the plays of Eugene O’Neill. And I loved David Bowie.

Bowie wasn’t mainstream cool then but he wasn’t obscure either so his 70s canon could be bought on vinyl for $3.99 at Tower Records. I bought a stereo at a garage sale for $25 and worked my way through his catalogue in my room, the mismatched eyes on my Thin White Duke poster staring down at me.

Hunky Dory led me to the art of Andy Warhol and the Factory era. Diamond Dogs was the soundtrack to whatever Orwell, Huxley or Anthony Burgess I was reading at the time (many of the songs having been written for Bowie’s ill-fated attempt to stage 1984: The Musical). The Man Who Sold the World gave voice to early teenage alienation, not just for me but I suspect for another kid roughly the same age, also being raised by a single Mom in the Pacific Northwest, who went on to cover it on Nirvana Unplugged.)

Of course I think about it now and cringe. All that angst and self-pity, what was the point? But it was an important part of growing up. 

Southern California in the mid-80s was a sprawl of social conservatism and non-stop Top 40 hits. Thankfully, around the age of 15 I discovered SoCal hardcore punk, but even that was through Bowie via Iggy Pop. (And through my Mom, also an adventurous music lover. I still have her copy of London Calling. Sorry Mom.)

I started going to see bands from LA like the Adolescents, Social Distortion and the Circle Jerks, as well as local heroes the Descendants and touring bands like the Cro Mags and Agnostic Front. I met other kids from all over who were called fags at their schools (because they were gay or just different). I met other kids who were politically engaged. I discovered zines and started my own. My male role models became Jello Biafra (it’s ok to be smart, angry and funny), Ian Mackaye (it’s ok not to follow your peers) and Steve Ignorant Of CRASS who sang sarcastically, “If you want to be a man, you better act like one. Show off your muscles. Use your prick like a gun.”) I shaved the sides of my head and bleached my hair and wore my leather jacket to shows but I could still wear my Bowie t-shirt. Bowie got respect everywhere, even the most unlikely places. As John Lydon said in his memoir (Anger is an Energy):

“Bowie was propagating this man-love imagery, but he was doing it in such a brave way that … football thugs liked the audacity of it, and the toughness, and suddenly outrageous gay people became warriors, respected by hooligans. It’s a good lesson to learn about the way things really work – what you’d think would be exact opposites could sometimes meet at the same place. If you stand up for whatever it is you really believe in, if you really stand up, and be accounted for, people will rate you highly.”

David Bowie heard Little Richard and the voice of God. Keith Morris, the singer of the Circle Jerks, sang “my life was saved by Darby Crash.” Everyone needs someone like that to tell them, as per the refrain from Bowie’s Rock and Roll Suicide, “…you’re not alone.” Kids have the internet now, but we had records, fanzines and all ages shows.

Of course part of becoming an adult is learning not to rely on any group for your identity. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, at just being. That’s why the exhibition title is so right. David Bowie is whatever you want him to be. But he also just is.

When my own children bring home their first boyfriend or girlfriend I’m not likely to ask him or her about their intentions. I won’t play the protective father, thereby denying my girls their sexual agency. I’m much more likely to sit them down and ask, in all seriousness, “So…what do you think of Bowie?”

Plato, Kyrgios, Lance Armstrong and role models

It would be hard to find a category less suited to producing “role models” than the professional sportsperson. Plato thought so too. “Who is to lead us?” is Plato’s central preoccupation in The Republic, and the decathletes and wrestlers of Ancient Greece are never seriously considered.

Plato’s ideal leader was the Philosopher-King, who isn’t ready to lead until age 50, having spent the years to age 18 in basic training (physical and intellectual), followed by two years of military training, then 10 years of mathematics. At age 30, a 15 year apprenticeship follows, at which time the Philosopher-King will be ready to lead the Republic. In contrast, spending all your waking hours perfecting the skill of hitting a ball over a net seems a poor preparation. So why do we expect our sportspeople to be role models?

I started thinking about this on reading Anthony Tan’s consistently excellent column Tan Lines about Tony Martin’s stage four win in the Tour de France, which has been widely described as a “fairy tale” and “emotional”. Tan says it can be awkward for the writer and the subject when sports journalists try to invest the sportsperson with attributes that aren’t there, in order to feed the public’s need for a narrative. Martin has had his ups and downs as a cyclist (not uncommon in professional cycling) and is known for his focus and discipline (also common), but “Professional Cyclist Wins TDF Stage After Trying Really Hard for a Long time,” isn’t the story people want to read.

Lance Armstrong built an empire on our need to believe in fairy tales. He famously stood on the winner’s podium on the Champs Elysee and said he felt sorry for anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles. When Floyd Landis went on 60 Minutes to comprehensively dismantle his former team leader’s myth, he said “Look. At some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real. I hate to be the guy to do it, but it’s just not real.”

Nick Kyrgios is an exciting player to watch. He is young and has years to improve and mature. His on-court antics can be annoying, but whatever. No more so than the young John McEnroe, now an elder-statesmen of the game. It’s ridiculous to expect humility, maturity and calm from a 20-year-old whose every move is being scrutinised, often in slow motion close up, by a televised audience of millions, when his every waking hour has been spent training for this moment. And there’s an extra expectation on non-white athletes that they be non-threatening and self-deprecating. Role model squared.

I think all of this was packed into Dawn Fraser’s short rant. The “go back to where your parents came from” is somewhat ingenious if disingenuous. Forty-eight percent of Australians are immigrants or have a foreign born parent, the third highest in the OECD, which opens up whole new vistas of invective for the home-grown racist. And Dawn Fraser is a former athlete. Her own youthful antics got her banned from international swimming for 10 years. But we forget we were all young once – youth is a foreign country.

Generally speaking, professional road cyclists are a monkish lot who don’t easily conform to role model expectations. Armstrong was different – brash, intelligent, articulate and with a social conscieCoppince – a role model. It was all a lie. Fausto Coppi, Il Campionissimo, five-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and double Tour de France winner in the 1940s and early 50s, was also articulate, well dressed and urbane. He revolutionised the sport of cycling with modern ideas of training, recovery and nutrition (and doping, famously saying if a cyclist didn’t take amphetamines to improve performance, he wasn’t serious). Witty and debonair, with a Milanese cool, he was as often in the social pages as the sports pages.

Gino Bartali was Coppi’s greatest rival, also two-time winner of the Tour de France (he still holds the record for the longest gap between TDF wins – 10 years) and three-time winner of the Giro. From a modest, rural background, simply spoken and deeply religious, he was nicknamed “Gino the Pious,” not always without sarcasm. Bartali came to racing by apprenticing in a bike shop at the age of 13.

Gino_BartaliWhile Coppi is still revered today, Bartali is little talked about. He was, however, briefly in the news in 2013, when he was awarded the “Righteous Among Nations” medal by world holocaust research centre Yad Vashem for his efforts to save Jews during WWII. It emerged in 2010 that Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his cellar during the war. He had worked for the Italian Resistance, transmitting messages and documents rolled up in his bike frame on long “training rides”. In this manner, he also assisted Italian Jews with false documentation, working with a Jewish group responsible for smuggling an estimated 800 Jews to safety. The Italian secret service and their German allies in Italy considered him untouchable because of his status as a sportsman.

All of this emerged a full 10 years after Bartali’s death in 2000. He was an unassuming man, and difficult to interview. Unlike Coppi, he talked little about his accomplishments and anyone expecting a unifying narrative from him would have come away disappointed. When Bartali was eventually brought before the secret service, he said simply, “I do what I feel in my heart.”

After the war, he resumed training without falsified identity documents hidden in his top tube. He went on to win the Tour de France a second time at the age of 35. He wrote no memoir, told no one about his heroism. No one emulated Bartali – he wasn’t a role model.

To read more about Gino Bartali’s wartime activities: Road To Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon.