Discover more from Kvetch
A “New Hong Kong” in Australia?
Frontier-ism and why Australian Republicans are pathetic
But first…. Mary Gaitskill
“love is also about an indefinable grace that one doesn’t earn or make happen; a kind of inexplicable moment or moments where those quantifiables recede and you are aware of another person in some other, more essential way”
Mary Gaitskill, Female Hypergamy
I’ve enjoyed corresponding with Mary Gaitskill who writes at her Substack Out of it. She’s a real writer: a novelist who’s been published in places like The New Yorker and most recently The Paris Review. She stumbled on Kvetch via Bride inflation, Tinder and the derangements of modern dating, and reached out.
I guess she’s become a kind of pen pal? Do people still use that term? It seems anachronistic, predating email. But I don’t think I’ve ever had such extensive and frank correspondence with someone who’s connected online.
Anyway, she cross-posted my piece to her Substack, but it was this commentary in her post on Female Hypergamy that tickled me the most:
For me the subjects of polygamy and hypergamy don’t obviously go together but Misha links them in a fizzy and fascinating way that made me want to talk to him even if I don’t agree with most of what he says, and find some of it just strange. When I reached out, he was receptive and so talk we did! Which was enjoyable and eye-opening in a subtle way that I’m not sure I can analyze now—I suppose it could simply have been refreshing to have that kind of conversation (plus several email exchanges) with someone so outside my normal conversational sphere. I found it so refreshing actually that I am going to post it (the conversation) at the end of this week. But before that I will cross-post some parts of “Wife Economics” so that you can see what we are talking about. I hope you find it as compelling as I did.
(My emphasis added.) I love how odd I come across. A curiosity. An internet dude on the other side of the world with strange ideas — the elephant man of ideas. Or a train wreck…. can’t look away! (That’s my twist — Mary is far more kind and generous).
The idea of engaging with someone who you disagree with but find interesting seems increasingly quaint. I’d always rather engage with someone who is interesting but wrong (David Graeber is a gold medalist here) than right but boring. Most people are wrong and boring, the worst quadrant, and they should be disenfranchised.
Mary then writes in her cross-post of the piece:
it is totally different from how I think + it's fascinating to read. Misha Saul expresses some big, loud ideas taking up a lot of space in online communities, but he expresses them with more scope, verve and interesting eccentricity than...anyone else I've come across. This is part of a 4-part series but I've selected part 3 because that is the first one that got my attention, but there is a lot more when this came from. Love it or hate it, I hope you enjoy it... "
Gotta say I’m chuffed by this recommendation!
Moreover, I could not have paid for a more flattering recommendation of Kvetch:
Alternately whimsical and serious, this is one of the most entertaining and expansive SStacks I've read; very erudite and eclectic, it's like being up in an ancient tower looking out at history plus a lot of TV shows and movies.
She interviewed me for her podcast.I don’t recall what we spoke about, but it was fun, and I found it charming that she ended the conversation the same way she ended her conversation with Tyler: she said she was hungry and that was that.
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Podcast with Cameron Murray
This was a broad, punchy and fun interview focused on Australian social and public policy. Cameron is an interesting economist and thinker (check out his Twitter). It’s hard to place him — is he a lefty? He supports effective government takeover of superannuation and housing. He detests corporate rent seeking and has written a great book on endemic corruption / political economy (depending on your perspective). I have a Kvetch on it coming up. But more than anything he just seems to think for himself? He doesn’t think housing is too expensive (!) and has thought deeply on this issue, among others. I’m never quite sure if I agree with him or how much — always a good sign — but I find his contrarian streak compelling. He’s data-driven and he doesn’t come with a bundle of prepackaged views based on an ideology or party affiliation — another gem. A rare genuinely orthogonal thinker in the Australian landscape. So it’s great to see him have some meaningful mainstream media presence. It’s a great conversation, highly recommended.
Frontier-ism and a Dearth of Imagination
On the podcast with Cameron, I mentioned my 2019 essay “A New Hong Kong in Australia”, and so I republish it below. It was my first blog post, what partly kicked off the path to this Substack. It was a ridiculous idea: a New Hong Kong in Australia. But to me the strangest thing was how strange it sounded. Why must it be strange? There was a New Amsterdam before it was renamed New York in 1664. Every Australian city was founded and named long after that. Why can’t we build new cities?
I mentioned the idea as an example of a dream of new frontiers in Australia. We are not the same nation that built this country. We are reaping what the settlers and pioneers and convicts and the British Crown sowed. I recently saw someone on Twitter be dismissive of “frontier-ism”. I don’t know what they meant exactly, but I am drawn to the term. Once upon a time the horizon stretched endlessly before men. There were things, ideas to live, fight and die for. What do we have now?
In 1492, the crowns of Spain and Portugal drew a line across the world and split it in two between them. In 1516, following the conquest of Mexico, the sixteen year old Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, took the motto inscribed upon the fabled Pillars of Hercules — Non plus ultra “Nothing further beyond” — and struck out the first word to make the motto for himself and for Spain to the present day: Plus ultra, further beyond.
The coat of arms of the Conde de Lemos, a Spanish noble family, bore the motto:
A la Espada y el compas, Mas y mas y mas y mas — “To the Sword and the compass, More and more and more.”
Further beyond. More and more and more.
We live good lives. Reaping and not sowing isn’t so bad. I don’t want to over-romanticise the past, which was generally much harder and bloodier. Yet, we do not need to go back very far to stumble onto miracles of city and state-sized proportions. In the last century alone, Singapore rose from swampland to become one of the most advanced nations in the world. Israel re-emerged after two millennia, beginning in a dream published in a pamphlet in the 1890s — if you will it, it is no dream, said Theodore Herzl. Mormons heralded a new prophet and built Salt Lake city in 1847. The deeds of the near past were Great. Dreams did not stay in the clouds, but were forged on earth.
It is not news that great nations rise, stultify, and decline. At the time of their conquest, the Mexica spent a third of their times on religious practices and their governing institutions got stuck in a cycle of sacrifice to appease their gods. Their martial spirit stultified into ceremonial wars for the purpose of harvesting sacrificial victims (the “Flower Wars”). Their stultification and centralisation made them ripe for the plucking by the Spanish, who decapitated their society and replaced their ruling class.
Nor did their ambitious mottos stop the Spanish from decaying in the centuries following the conquest of the New World. The Spanish Crown became so indebted and bloated it sold titles, fettering away the prestige and inheritance accumulated over centuries. In 1541, one in nine Spaniards was a noble. Over the next century that grew to one in seven, with a full quarter of Spaniards exempt from taxation and productive labour for being noble, clergy or military.
Shielded by oceans and guided by firm Anglo institutions and temperament, Australia’s trundled forward, up and to the right, steadily accumulating wealth. Only the US and Australia have never suffered 100% drawdowns in their equity markets. It is good to be girt by sea.
What do we do with that awesome power?
We built the New Jersey of the world:
Our ancestors forged a nation so that we could have liberty and wisdom and we… kvetch about house prices and franking credits.
This concern is an old one, going back to at least Adam Smith:
Another bad effect of commerce is that it sinks the courage of mankind, and tends to extinguish martial spirit. In all commercial countries the division of labor is infinite, and every one’s thoughts are employed about one particular thing. . . . The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and heroic spirit is utterly extinguished.
We have not been entirely bereft of dreams. But in the West those dreams have moved away from new cities toward new technologies, sometimes incremental, sometimes transformational. And perhaps there are good reasons why we don’t bother with new cities. Perhaps the economic laws of agglomeration mean that we do more with less in cities, specialise deeper, build higher.
But that is being too kind. It’s not like Australia is hurtling down technological frontiers either. Where is Australia’s national vision?
We have elections over franking credits. Perhaps boring elections are a blessing, a symptom of everything trundling along just fine. (Of course, this discourse really represented the entrenched power of older, land owning Australian generations who benefited from the largest transfer of wealth in Australian history via property prices.)
We obsess over measures to curtail our growth — there are even so-called de-growthers, who seek to raise the cost of energy. This is not a new impulse.
There is a story about an inventor who approached the Roman emperor Tiberius with his new invention: unbreakable glass. Tiberius had him killed to bury the secret forever — he must protect the livelihood of the glassmakers.
In the early 1400s, the Chinese built the greatest fleet the world had ever seen, sailed it to the Indian Ocean, impressed their Greatness upon the natives with their magnanimity, sailed back to China, burned their ships and all knowledge of ship building to cede the oceans to Europeans forevermore.
We seek to institute racial division into the Australian constitution. A literal real life debate in Australia today is to enshrine an administrative race-based superstructure into the constitution so that it cannot be abolished for incompetence and corruption like its predecessors. Even the literal words truth and reconciliation are being bandied about together. As if the catastrophe of South Africa is a model to be emulated. We can’t fix the shameful conditions under which so many indigenous Australians live and so we drown them in condescensionand symbolism. Worse, we want to institutionalise the endless dysfunction and division that plagues the plethora of indigenous groups that already exist today.
We don’t have a vision for this country and bicker instead over zoning and quixotic quests at redemption. It’s one reason it’s hard to take Australian Republicans seriously. What do they actually want to do with the symbolic mantle of Australian power? What new covenant do they seek? What new Promised Land do they guide us to? Why do they seek a change? There is nothing there. No new promise. No will to greatness. Only negation. It hurts their pride for the
Queen King to preside over Australia. It’s almost worse that he is powerless, that Australia charts its own destiny today. There is no tax, no burden, no sanction, no violence or violation nor threat thereof. There is only pride. A sad little impotent pride of swollen chested men. But it is not these megalomaniac men who are the crux of the problem. No, they are symptomatic of a real underlying lack of vision.
I suppose a middle power island — part quarry, part farm — may not need a vision. Every great people of the past from the Israelites to the Romans to the Brits to the Scots to the Spanish to the Americans believed in their own exceptionalism. Perhaps that’s not for us. The Shire’s hobbits needed no vision but to tend to their gardens and fawn over pretty neighbours. Nor did the hobbits believe in exceptionalism, but rather in just carrying on. But the discourse is so unbearably focused on a few trees — franking credits and degrowth and land acknowledgements — that we don’t consider the forest. We let in hundreds of thousands of migrants into the country every year, cram them into the same cities, without ever asking why on earth does Australia have the few cities where it does?We can be bolder, and build a greater nation. We can be live players, not mere heirs running down our inheritance. All that’s missing is the will.
The flipside of large transformative migrations is that they’re usually driven by regrettable push factors. The Ottoman Empire capitalising on expelled Jews out of the Iberian Peninsula. The Irish potato famine precipitating the largest migration in history to the New World. Calvinist persecution in Britain. Russian pogroms. The Holocaust. Melbourne has the largest Greek population in the world outside of Athens due to a miserable string of devastating wars and civil wars in Greece last century. Maybe the invisible drum beat that called the Jews of the Arab world to Israel is a counterexample — although that is a mix of push and pull factors at best, and hardly replicable. Maybe we can’t simply request national builders to arrive without great peril at home. And maybe what happened in Hong Kong is not quite that.
But before I give the game away too much, here is the essay I wrote. I think it holds up pretty well, even if I’d ease up on some of the rhetoric today. US power has also grown relative to what I expected at the time, on the back of the war in Ukraine. And Chinese power has receded, given its COVID failures. The future is hard.
A New Hong Kong in Australia?
Hong Kong is feeling the tremors of the global democratic experiment of the post-WWII order receding. The next fifty years will see geopolitics shaped by its natural centres of gravity: the economic rise and empowerment of the populations of China and India. It has been shocking to see the silence in the West in the face of Chinese authoritarianism clamping down on one of its liberal outposts. Perhaps we cannot hope to hold or shape a territory that is a mere bus ride away from mainland China. But whether the tide of global democracy is going out or not, we in the West, even in Australia, do not need to stand by and do nothing.
What if we offered political asylum to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens to develop our regional base? Does a more perfect constituency exist for this grand experiment in nation building? A highly educated, English speaking, wealthy population activated towards civic engagement. These are the folks who could come to Australia and together with our support build a new city, create a new strand of Australianism. There are many potential city contenders, but what about Darwin? A leap towards an Australia inextricably linked with the Asian future of the region and the world. A “New Hong Kong” in Darwin, settled by political refugees burning for a new life, bringing with them the human and economic capital of Hong Kong, where the GDP per capita is close to Australia’s. Yes, it is more radical than anything we have done since Federation. But why not? It allows us to shape our future. No longer can we ignore our Eastern capitals bursting at the seams, playing catch up with infrastructure. We can invigorate the Australian national building impulse, and build a wealthy, future facing population in a region crying out for development. Another pillar to the grand Australian experiment, one of the longest running democracies on the planet.
Think of the transformation of NYC by its Russian émigré’s, for whom Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem on the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Australia takes our fair share of refugees and immigrants, and a separate case can be made for taking more of the global destitute and fleeing. But in addition to intakes based mainly on humanitarian grounds, what might a grander, mutually beneficial proposal look like? Why can’t we build a promised land for the Hong Kong constituency, and lead them out of China?
Canberra was the last major city built in Australia, over a hundred years ago. We have stopped building new cities, even as our population has exploded. We have not had the dramatic rise of new cities in the vein of Singapore or Tel Aviv (or Hong Kong for that matter), but rather the Burkean incrementalism of English Commonwealths. And I expect this kind of nation building exercise to be somewhat against the conservative natural grain of Australians. But of course, frontier-ismis also a part of the Australian DNA. And this time, we can do it with local support, with a united vision of what is possible. We can take a leap into the 21st century.
But there are many people around the world crying out for a new land. Why the people of Hong Kong? Many of Australia’s almost 30% foreign-born population is Chinese. They are a familiar piece of Australia’s cultural landscape. We educate great numbers of Chinese students, and welcome them across our tourist destinations. The distance between us and the people of Hong Kong is shorter still. We share much with our Commonwealth cousins. From the English language, judicial systems (we shared the same highest court of appeal, the Privy Council, until 1975), economic structure and democratic institutions, it would be more like re-planting cultural cousins into compatible soils here. It is difficult to think of a more suitable match. And now is the time to extend our hand, as armies loom over the people of Hong Kong.
Of course, this is just one modest proposal, and assumes the people of Hong Kong take up our offer, and the people of Darwin or another centre welcome the opportunity envisioned. But surely it is a proposal at least worth discussing.
We are a medium sized country, with middling power. We cannot mean to shape China towards our values. We have stood silent in the face of horrendous Chinese domestic policies, not least of all the suppression and internment of the Uighurs, which continues with barely a flutter in global capitals. At the same time, China is a critical trading partner, we sell them resources, real estate, companies, education. And we should feel proud of our role in the urbanisation of China, the lifting of its people out of poverty, as we should feel unease about its domestic abuses.
Here is a moment where our moral and economic interest can align. Let us invite Hong Kong’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Grant political asylum to those who would have their light of liberty snuffed out by China’s ruling communists. We have the space, the will and the self-interest to partner with these folks. Let us extend our hand to a new, loyal class of democratic citizens who can help us leap into the 21st century together.
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For the Substack, Mary asked for a photo. She rejected the following not because it was bad, “[b]ut in the context of this piece it’s kind of like a girl with large beautiful breasts wearing a tight, low-cut shirt! Its a lot!” Which…. sounds awesome? I’ll have to use it more. Gonna get my large beautiful breasts out.
From Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Ever since the Jacobite rising of 1745, Scotsmen had been denied the use and ownership of weapons. Adam Smith’s Edinburgh peers:
organised the Poker Club specifically to “stir up” public support for creating a Scottish militia…. arguing that a citizen militia was a way to keep alive the traditions of physical courage and martial spirit in a commercial society.
Franking credits are interesting in of themselves. Australia has implemented a system of dividend imputation. Australian shareholders get credits for tax paid by their investee companies to avoid double taxation. Incredibly, this has effectively abolished corporate tax in Australia (for domestic shareholders anyway). It suits nobody very much to frame it this way.
This Australian tourism ad from over a decade ago is too perfect. Australia’s cultural elite consider indigenous Australians as some kind of hallowed species of faerie.
Australia’s elites on every side love immigration. It grows total GDP, which is good for business. It makes progressives feel good. It boosts land prices. Just under no circumstances mention GDP per capita or ask voters what they want. Hey, I’m not complaining — I’m pro-oligarchy!
I just noticed I used ‘frontier-ism’ in 2019…