Dispatches from the Global Atheist Convention

Day one – Thursday: It begins…

… or the fringe events begin, at any rate.

I’ve arrived in Melbourne, being greeted by more than a few pubs with closed doors and ‘For Sale’ signs, and hijab or ten. The voice of an invisible, satirical yokel cries in my mind ‘Sharia law! This was a Christian nation’.

We don’t have the same presence of far-right, totalitarian, Islamic groups here in Australia that Europe has. Our yokels object to Muslims, not Islam (which they don’t know anything about – ask them what they think of Wahhabism, and they’ll probably tell you they don’t like sushi), while our political left remains somewhat oblivious to the ways far-right political Islam can manifest, and don’t seem to understand why others on the left may have concerns.

(Indeed, given that moderate Muslims in migrant communities are often the first to be pressured/bullied/harassed by Islamic extremists in western nations, being reflexively blind to such extremism makes portions of the left bad friends to Muslims).

However, unless you encounter the yokel, the political RadiCool, or the occasional sanctimonious wonk, discussions of issues of religion and politics are comparatively laid back in Australia. We don’t have to worry about genuine critics of Islam being marginalized by the media, the way Maryam Namazie has been sidelined by the BBC in the UK, nor do we have to worry too much about secularists being sent death threats the way Jessica Ahlquist has been targeted by cowardly Christian nationalists in the US.

(And no, Andrew Bolt is not a victim of ‘political correctness’.)

***

I’m a vegetarian, in much the same ethical tradition as ethicist Peter Singer, a speaker at the Global Atheist Convention. Finding vegetarian-friendly meals on the fly while travelling can be a little trying, but thankfully I’ve had a little advice in advance, and tried out a local chain of vegetarian fast food: Lord of The Fries.

Lord of the Fries… No piggy served here.

It’s not the kind of place I’ll be eating at too regularly – cost and dietary concerns prohibit that. However, the food was truly wonderful, and worth every cent. I have my doubts anything like this could succeed in my hometown of Adelaide, but it’d be nice.

A cheaper vegetarian meal was sought in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, successfully, although the encounter raised an interesting issue. On shelves and on posters in the bakery sat propaganda for the ‘Supreme Master’ cult – a movement which has been advertising semi-regularly onAustralia’s multicultural, free-to-air television station, SBS.

This was hardly an interfaith exchange – my buying a vegetarian curry pie and sausage roll for cold hard cash. And it would be safe to say that I’m less than impressed with the way the ‘Supreme Master’ goes about the business of animal welfare and environmentalism. But in as far as we shared values, there was cooperation, differences notwithstanding.

On Monday night I’ll be going to an event hosted by Meredith Doig, and featuring Leslie Cannold, PZ Myers, and Chris Stedman, where the question will be asked, ‘can believers and atheists work together for the common good?’ I suspect my example fromPreston, amongst countless others, confirms a ‘yes’.

Honestly, I can’t think of a good, general secular principle binding me to not cooperate with believers. I guess you’d have to ask believers what their God (or ‘Supreme Master’) thinks, to see if there was an issue on their end.

In passing, I wonder just how much cooperation an infidel like me could expect from the staff of East Preston Islamic College or from the Islamic college at Werribbe – since arriving in Melbourne, I’ve heard rumblings from godless secularists and moderate Muslims alike, of concerns about Wahhabist overtones in the curriculum. This is second-hand anecdote, of course, not rigorous social science; perhaps Melburnian lefties will investigate rather than leaving it up to the Murdoch press.

Believer or not, most Australians don’t want divisiveness…although we argue endlessly about what it is and how to avoid it, with various levels of competence (when we’re not busy being too laid-back, that is.)

***

My Thursday night’s event of choice, which meant missing out on Dan Dennett and Peter Singer, was a discussion of Sean Faircloth’s ‘10 point plan’ on how to push secularism forward, and how a similar approach could be adopted in Australia, held at Embiggen Books. The discussion featured secularist power-houses Russell Blackford, Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy.

Near-consensus seemed to be reached that a series of such points should, at least in an Australian context, represent underlying secular principles from which specific policy points emerge, rather than being a shopping list of policy wants (which is pretty much what Faircloth’s list is). The difficulty in this however, it was suggested, was making such a series of points politically relevant and attractive to Australians. Abstract political concepts aren’t the easiest thing to sell, especially when you’re running up against savvy evangelicals and Australian Rules football.

Retellings of the consequences of sectarian policy, such as the suffering caused by a historically religious prohibition against same-sex marriage (now a wolf-in-secular-sheep’s clothing on account of concocted concerns about child welfare), have had increasing impact over the last twenty years upon Australia’s attitude towards marriage equality. Stories of human experience are necessary, in addition to secular philosophy, and scientific investigation of empirical truths (please consider this and this).

 

I was handed this flyer on my way to Embiggen Books for the evening’s proceedings…

There were many substantive matters discussed on the night, including the matter of free speech, which unlike as in the US, isn’t a particularly well protected right in Australia, if a right at all. The agreed-upon place for the continuation of the night’s discussion is over at Russell Blackford’s blog, in the comments of a recent post (here).

The evening concluded with Russell and Jenny Blackford and Graham Oppy, leading VIP Debbie Goddard, and a bunch of Adelaidian misfits off to The Moat, under the Wheeler Centre, for drinks and a chin-wag. I must have been getting tired, because some of the details are a little hazy, and I only had one drink (a nice little pinot) – I do recall misplaced apostrophes being found in the menu, and Archbishop George Pell being the butt of a joke.

Maybe I shouldn’t be revealing these kinds of details anyway. Hopefully though, my constitution can withstand the full force of the convention proper!

~ Bruce

Day two – Friday: Canapés and Entrées…

The official story was, I’m told, that the canapés were a part of some kind of standard package. This apparently counted against all the forms filled out by ticket holders, marking ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ (or whatnot).

I wasn’t around at the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 to compare, but I’m told there were similar issues then with vegetarian food. I can’t honestly say I was irked, myself, but there were grumbling veggies with grumbling tummies in earshot, that made their views apparent.

(Please note, I absolutely do not attribute the cause of this gastronomic mishap to any of the volunteers from the Atheist Foundation of Australia – I know full well some of the effort from behind the scenes, put into accommodating vegetarians. Nor incidentally, was the catering staff at the public end responsible.)

David Nicholls gave a decent opening address to the convention.

Things are changing, inevitably, with young faces like Jason Ball’s all over the place, but it’s worth noting where all of this came from. A reflection on the history of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, delivered from our bemulleted, rural, South Australian Prez, breathed life into the legacy of the older generation. I swear I could smell home brew, pottery, Brut 33, and old letters to the editor.

(I’m originally from rural South Australia, and I once also sported a mullet, so I’m allowed to stir; the Prez is one of my own people.)

Kylie Sturgess and Lawrence Leung took to the stage to MC the event, demonstrating the perfect mix of joviality and professionalism. A cocktail should be named after these two (a task that would have been satisfying, to have been able to see being put past The Hitch).

Mikey Robbins started strong, and I was glad to see him, 1990s throwback that I am, but I can’t help but think his stride was interrupted, somewhat, by what, I don’t know.

Ben Elton… Oh, Ben. Poor sexually repressed Ben.

Apparently, the idea of people with shaved nether-regions having oral sex offends the man’s sensibilities. I know Dawkins has been nominated the atheist pope, but he’s just too liberal about respecting other people’s sex lives – since when has he issued edicts about what consenting adults are and aren’t supposed to do with their tender bits?

Ben Elton; pope of atheists, or pope aspirant?

Aside from that, and a journey through what seemed like recycled material from 1999 (‘hey kids, how about those spam emails?’), Elton still seemed funnier than I can remember, since his appearance in a Comic Relief in the 1980s. The whole genital jeremiad was tied together into something approaching religious satire near the end of the act, but I would have liked more religious material, if only to reduce the appearance of old filler.

Stella Young, I didn’t know you, and I didn’t know I loved you; you were awesome.

Somehow, tying things together in a religious context towards the end of Stella’s act didn’t raise the issues I had with Elton’s performance. Getting to know how Stella views the world, prior to the introduction of religion, was a bit like getting to know the cast of Alien before introducing the eponymous monster – you were made to care when the proverbial hit the fan.

And not in some patronising, wishy-washy way, either. That was half the point, the way people pretend to be enlightened in their treatment of ‘the other’ – instead treating them like children or fashion accessories. I pity the wanker who tries to talk down to Stella.

I think I’m going to be dragging the concept of use-mention distinctions into my critique of performance art, where gender epithets rear their heads. Stella dropped the c-bomb; she used the term ‘cripple’. She mentioned ‘c**t’ when telling a crowd member they looked like they’d have preferred that term instead.

I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this either, but at the very least she wasn’t calling anyone, one, or using the term insincerely or in a cowardly way (which would be bad art). I’m not going to fault it.

(I suspect use-mention error may be the perfect rebuttal of choice to those Internet misogynists claiming that a feminist mentioning the word ‘cunt’ in any analysis, is morally equivalent to when a misogynist uses the term by calling someone ‘cunt’. It isn’t equivalent, and I’d like to nominate use-mention as a technical distinction worthy of greater use in these discussions.)

I was told, when asking some local comedy fans, that aside from the c-bomb being a common staple of Melbournian comedy, that recently, there’d been local controversy over the use of the word – and subsequent pushback from comedians. Apparently they need to stand up to the oppression of being criticised, or something, the poor souls.

I’m not entirely sure of where I stand on the use of gender epithets in the arts, across the breadth of contexts that is. Was it in-character? Was it satirical? Was it pure gender hatred? What does this say about the sincerity of the artwork/artist?

However, as far as healthy scepticism permits, I’m quite sure where it is that I stand on Jim Jefferies’ use of the term. I loathe watching people calling other people ‘cunt’.

Yeah, Jim, you’re edgy. You shock. You push envelopes – the same envelopes, over and over and over again. Aside from becoming very predictable, very quickly, losing whatever shock value it had like some cheap chewing gum rapidly losing an initially strong flavour, what the audience was left with, ultimately, was a jerk who treats domestic violence like suitable trolling material.

‘…remember not to punch women…’

‘…saw off my mum’s breast…’

(I paraphrase).

Dude started edgy (aka cutting-edge misogynist), but by the end of the gig, sheer repetition degenerated Jeffries’ material into misogynistic Dad jokes. He should swap that Prisoner style jacket for a cardigan and a copy of the Herald Sun.

I’d hate to think that Jim Jeffries has to burn up audiences like a starving beard-neck at an all-you-can-eat, just to maintain the appearance of his material being fresh. I say this because the guy’s not talentless at all. When you stripped back the shock-misogyny, what you were left with is possibly the most talented comic of the night – easily beating out Ben Elton.

Marion Maddox (the believer on the next day’s politics panel) would call this out the following morning; atheists don’t get to criticise religious misogyny from the same platform they spew misogyny from themselves. While I wouldn’t say there’s grounds to say Jeffries was representative (and I’d call false moral equivalence on comparing a misogynist comedian to the women-hating antics of most religions), Jeffries as a choice of entertainer is more than wide-open to criticism.

The GAC started with the explicit mention of how feminism was aligning more closely with atheistic objectives, something that this convention’s line-up was supposed to demonstrate. I’m not saying Jeffries should be censored. What I am saying is that his trade should have been plied elsewhere, perhaps off with the rest of the comedy wankers in Melbourne– he didn’t belong on this stage, and I didn’t enjoy paying for a gold ticket to see him.

Yes, I do know this is a freethinking community. I do know that there will be differences. But is it worth having a central theme of the convention crossed so thoughtlessly by someone who’s there as a crowd warmer?

What’s next? George Pell giving us the comedic stylings of why child abuse is funny?

Stage-time is a finite resource where John Stuart Mill’s opportunity cost comes in to play, unavoidably restricting the range of views that can expressed. It’s not wrong for freethinkers to prioritise in these circumstances

Is it such a crime against freethought, and so out of line with our cause, to have ‘haw haw, violence against women is funny’, off the agenda?

A guest post by Bruce Everett

Day three – Saturday: The meat of the GAC… or the TVP…

Early to bed, early to rise… sigh. I went to bed late, owing to running into an old school friend at the GAC, and going out for drinks. On our crawl, we even ran into the messiah…

Imaan – Bigger Than Jesus

He shares at least one thing in common with Richard Dawkins, incidentally; he doesn’t like Andrew Bolt.

***

Okay… Saturday… Early to rise

Saturday morning, after being unintentionally awoken by one of my jetlagged Italian roommates (which was welcome because my alarm clock had broken), I got off my backside and made my way to the convention to see Peter Singer.

Singer, if you don’t know, is a vegetarian, which kind of suggests certain things about what the catering may need to take into account. Kylie Sturgess reminded the audience as much as we went into a break later in the day (respect those vegetarians!)

Catering turned out to be more amenable to us animal-cruelty avoiding weirdos in the audience.

Singer invoked the old device of The Expanding Circle to discuss the extent to which we are willing to extend our moral concern beyond our selves, and our immediate kin, though the tiers of groups, all the way up to and including all life on Earth capable of suffering. It was argued, predictably, that the circle is expanding; however, Singer referred to Steven Pinker’s recent Better Angels of Our Nature as an empirical basis for this claim, which was novel.

Although I think Singer was bested in terms of overall value by other speakers at the convention, he was still no slouch. Indeed, he’s the academic I most anticipated seeing at the convention; I wasn’t disappointed.

Leslie Cannold however, stole the show. It was at least a tie between her and Lawrence Krauss, who would follow later in the night, in terms of sheer energy and engagement.

The myths surrounding section 116 of the Australian Constitution were torn asunder by Cannold, especially in light of the DOGS 1981 case, where the High Court used what appears to be pure sophistry to interpret the separation of church and state inAustraliaout of existence. This was made apparent, and obvious, through a comparison of the incredibly similar wordings of our section 116 and the establishment clause of the first amendment in theUSconstitution.

Prepared with Max Wallace, and delivered by such a proficient communicator as Leslie Cannold, the issue was rendered vivid and undeniable. The success of the delivery of this message is important because of a common misconception; Australiahas no separation of church and state – it’s a soft theocracy.

***

Dan Barker was, well, Dan Barker. Lovable, but still with the oratory of a preacher; a kind I personally find off-putting. I emphasise; ‘personally’.

I can understand Dan Barker’s appeal to those leaving fundamentalist Christianity though. He nails biblical absurdities with wit and emotion, and just a bit of camp value, if you like that kind of thing. I especially appreciated Barker’s disclosure of how he spends the royalties from an old piece of Christian propaganda he produced back in the day; on a charity supporting women’s reproductive autonomy.

Others may differ, but aside from light entertainment, I got only one thing from Dan Barker’s performance, but it was a good-un; I gained a trust in his motives I otherwise couldn’t have.

When I discussed the Convention with Warren Bonnet (editor of the Australian Book of Atheism, and co-owner of Melbourne’s Embiggen Books), he emphasised the importance of these conventions as a means to humanise our networks; that we don’t just leave our interactions purely at the mercy of communications technologies, with all the social problems that can arise out of them.

While it wasn’t necessarily the high-profile atheists Warren and I had in mind, I think my experience watching Dan Barker, whom I’ve had (healthy) doubts about, demonstrates the point. I trust others can corroborate experiences like this.

***

After the morning break (with very nice, vegetarian-friendly biscuits – BISCUITS!), a political panel discussing the need for secular reform, in particular in the regulation of education, consisted of Fiona Patten, Colleen Hartland, Dick Gross, and Marion Maddox, with Derek Guille as moderator.

Marion Maddox stole the show, and given she was the biggest believer on the panel, it was perhaps ironic that she was easily most worthy of the title ‘secular fundamentalist’ – taking Dick Gross and Colleen Hartland to task for their comparatively soft touch. (It also helped that Maddox knew her material.)

Dick Gross was a waste of space on the panel, which isn’t to say I dislike him. It’s just that aside from a single salient point – concerning a matter of opportunity cost between comparative religion and science funding in schools – he listlessly equivocated and vacillated, seemingly wasting a lot of energy just to position himself as some kind of moderate.

All the positioning could have been justified if only he’d committed himself to clearer, more lucid disagreement with the others on the panel. But that isn’t what he gave us (and I don’t care one jot about his long-standing status as a popularFairfaxblogger.)

(Right on the back of the publication of Freedom of Religion & the Secular State, Dick’s was a seat that would have easily been better filled by Russell Blackford.)

Fiona Patten, of the Australian Sex Party, was largely in agreement with Marion Maddox, although the sequence of questioning left her largely nodding her head and adding occasional secondary points after Maddox spoke. I would have liked to have seen Patten given the lead more often – not to displace Maddox, but so that at least Patten had a chance to direct discussion towards the political niches where she has more specialised experience than Maddox. As an experienced newsperson, Derek Guille should have taken this into account.

General consensus was reached, which was more or less unsurprising; to do secular education right, public schools needed better funding across a number of curriculum learning areas. I’m in agreement; however, there are those libertarians in the ‘atheist movement’ who support voucher systems and privatisation who may be at odds with this.

I don’t say this to be all fuzzy and inclusive; rather, I think it would be interesting to see, especially of those plying a trade in the Skeptic movement (effectively placing them in competition with public education, and making them beneficiaries of widespread scientific ignorance), which libertarians disagree.

On balance, I think the event at Embiggen Books two nights earlier, with Meredith Doig, Russell Blackford and Graham Oppy, was better, although I think adding Maddox and Patten to the mix, based on their GAC appearance, would make for a dream-card. Maybe if there’s another GAC inMelbourne?

***

Dan Dennett followed, giving a lecture on closet atheists – directed especially at any undercover believers in the audience. I’ve already seen much of what Dan Dennett has to say on the matter, so I won’t discuss the substantive points (if you’re curious, there’s The Evolution of Confusion), however there are signs of Dennett’s project progressing, with further refinements to the theory, as well as practical developments (see The Clergy Project).

Dennett was cuddly, friendly and funny, as usual (we even got the ‘deepity’ spiel). Technical terms were bridged with puns, criticism with good humour, and as always with Dennett, commonly accepted implications of well established theory were exposed as having either logical flaws, or obvious exceptions.

***

Lunch saw visitors arrive, or at least, it was the first I saw of them during the day.

‘Eternal Life in Christ Jesus Our Lord’? What, these guys will be living in JC’s intestinal lining as irritants?

Really, what on Earth did they hope to achieve? And ‘no warning is too strong’? That almost sounds like a threat, although I suspect it may actually refer to the sulphurous odour wafting from sweaty, angry Christians.

After a suitably wonderful vegetarian lunch (the wraps were awesome), and fundamentalists largely already forgotten, I have to confess I was getting a little tired. Which isn’t to say I fell asleep, however…

AC Grayling was on next, and for the life of me I can’t remember the substance of his presentation. In part, I recall agreeing with him in advance, and having no particular objection to what he had to say. I recall good humour, but not the actual jest.

I feel as if I’ve done him a disservice, like I’m a disrespectful undergrad.

This, I guess, is just a part of the reality of these things – the chaos of travel, especially on a low budget like my operation (the gold ticket was really pushing it, but I intended to make a go of things). I’m new to writing on the road, or rails, as it were.

My only defence, in my poor study of AC Grayling, is that I’ve had distractions of all sorts on this trip. In this case, having lost my earlier company, I was seated next to this ultra-defensive, thirty-something guy, who was insisting that a general statement about the first night’s comedy made by Daniel Dennett was specifically a defence of Jim Jeffries (it’d be interesting to find out what Dennett actually thinks).

***

Lawrence Krauss was next to give a talk; adapted from one he gave a few years ago at the request of Richard Dawkins, and which led to Krauss’ latest, A Universe From Nothing. Krauss was very much alive, and I was very much awake, and while I was familiar with the content, I was still captivated by the delivery.

If I could have asked for anything more, it would have been rather than having it asserted that it doesn’t matter that Krauss’ definition of ‘nothing’ is different from the traditional metaphysical definition, to be told why it doesn’t matter. Perhaps something similar to how Einstein’s refutation of the traditional, supposedly logically necessary, Euclidean definition of space, shows us how our traditional-intuitive approach to ‘nothing’ (or any other traditional-intuitive truth) may also be wrong. The history of intuitive ideas is a graveyard.

***

After a break where I took in a subjective impression of the demographics of the audience (there seemed to be more ethnic diversity and a more even gender balance in the younger generations), Geoffrey Robertson took to the stage to deliver the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Memorial Lecture. Hitchens’ various exploits against tyranny were re-told in brief, with anecdotes from Robertson’s privileged perspective as a friend.

Robertson took to criticising religion in a way I’d never really seen of him – a trite little poem, and suggestions for the re-purposing of empty churches as public toilets. I’m left wondering where and when the next Christopher Hitchens Memorial Lecture will be held.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali followed, discussing the nature of the Arab Spring protests, and what an Islamist Winter would look like for those living in theMiddle East. Often, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali addresses matters of politics, rather than autobiography, I find a lot to take exception with, although in many cases I’m never quite sure if it’s an infidelity of language (and perhaps a leftish prejudice on my part), that’s to blame.

I do think that this is generally true – that Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t as precise in discussing politics as many, including myself, may want (consider, for that matter, what she had to say about her own non-existent affinity for statistics in Infidel). Then consider the literary pareidolia that arises in the media whenever it’s a ‘New Atheist’ that’s being covered; the result is a lot of myth surrounding the woman, which can be hard to cut through to ascertain what it is exactly that she wants, and what it is that motivates her politics.

There’s an obvious passion for feminism there, but I’m talking particulars and nuance (her critics almost always seem to be after something else – a caricature). The need for cooperation being a theme that emerged out of various talks by this point (with a lot of disagreement on how to go about it), Ayaan Hirsi Ali delivered a plea to the audience: secular Muslims need your help.

If you hadn’t followed her for some time, with a fair mind and parsing her prose through a fine-tooth comb, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a little inconsistent with her politics. I’m still not sure it absolutely isn’t, but I can’t for the life of me say why it is, if it is. The only kinds of interpretations I can subscribe to at this point, are ones that whatever else, at least acknowledge Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s sincere concern for people’s welfare, including Muslims, and especially Muslim women.

Yet still, accepting this kind of interpretation will get you chewed out by sanctimonious sorts.

***

Finally, with Now Praise Intelligent Design, was Richard Dawkins. Often it seems, Dawkins is in the game of repeating himself, over and over and over. This is in part, I think, due to people demanding answers to the same questions, in particular in relation to ideas he put forth in The God Delusion, over and over and over. With such public fixation, you’d think he hadn’t authored a book since.

In fact, that was largely the case with Dawkins’ Q&A debate on the ABC – Dawkins was positioned against Pell and yet again introduced as the author of The God Delusion (but nothing else), to be asked the same questions by the audience that he’s been getting for years.

It’s worth giving viewers and readers new to the discussion, their on-ramp, but some of us more rusted-on followers of discussion, occasionally need a little more to keep our attention.

It may be that Dawkins was quite aware of this. His talk, focusing on taking back the phrase ‘intelligent design’ to refer to designs by humans, that are intelligent, touched on neglected territory – explicitly raising the issue of the reproductive design of babies: eugenics.

Dawkins sorted eugenics into positive and negative categories, respectively adding desirable traits to a child’s genome, and editing away inherited diseases.

Dawkins warned of the need for much care in the implementation of positive eugenics, and confessed disquiet, going as far as pointing out that there is the Hitler factor to it; Hitler attempted it (albeit with dubious morals, and insufficient understanding of biology, as per the period).

I’m waiting for some clever RadiCool, or creationist, to edit this talk into the appearance of some kind of doomsday scenario where Dawkins is calling for a eugenic New World Order, or some such.

 

I’d really like to see more of this kind of thing from Dawkins, and I think there’s also a need for it – this kind of technology is going to take-off somewhere in the world, at some point,  irrespective of what naysayers say. Eugenics needs to be discussed, irrespective of the risk of being misunderstood by the wilfully scientifically illiterate.

***

Saturday night: The gala dinner.

I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Mr Deity, and to be more honest, I have to say that I’m still not really sure why. I’ve got nothing at all against Brian Dalton (aka Mr Deity).

There was interesting discussion, aside from the comedy; the fact that Mr Deity was also popular with some liberal theists. For those advocating the maximum of cooperation at the GAC and events like it, this can only be a good thing.

I’m not a good judge for this. Mr Deity is just as much geek culture as it is atheist culture, and I’ve another confession; by default I’m not well disposed to any convention with a significant geek demographic.

This was my first convention, ever. Honestly. I still don’t think I could manage to withstand a DragonCon, ComicCon, or any of those other Nerdventions. Yuck.

So please don’t take my lack of appreciation too seriously.

Now this chap called Simon Taylor was the MC for the gala dinner, and it’s good that Kylie Sturgess and Lawrence Leung got a break. But there were a few more things I would have liked from Taylor, or at least one…

Specifically, when getting the various tables to design rationalism/atheism/science slogans, which he read out from little blue cards, he didn’t read out mine! (Hrmph!)

I’ll re-write it here and now…

‘Science: It’s self-correcting. Hopefully like whoever it was that booked Jim Jefferies.’

Maybe Mr. Taylor wanted to keep getting work… I still think it’s sufficiently light-hearted.

***

Dinner was good, incidentally, though the serving arrangements made it difficult to distinguish which guests at a table required vegetarian food.

I had to point this out with each course. That being said, my main meal was quite awesome; some kind of spicy, roast pumpkin number.

***

Shelly Segal. Maybe you’ve heard of her; she’s got an atheist album, oddly titled ‘An Atheist Album’.

The main problem I have with Segal’s performance was not of her own making – the sound was clearly set up wrong, with the volume up too high, and all sorts of distortion during the higher notes.

And Shelly Segal can hit her notes pretty hard. Couple this with the occasional acoustic ‘TWANK!’, and you have something potentially jarring for people who are, in large part, trying to enjoy a meal.

I won’t stop being an ass there though. Her lyrics were too didactic, too descriptive by far. It’s as if a conclusion has been decided upon, and the lyrics reverse engineered to that end, by committee. The songs, those which I’ve heard, state their premises explicitly, rather than proceeding artistically from them.

An Atheist Album.

It’s much the same difference as between Parrot (shown the following afternoon) and the clumsily scripted The Ledge. I hope at some point, Shelly Segal is afforded the opportunity to take creative influence from the likes Craig Foster and Emma McKenna (the directors of Parrot).

***

Of all the comedians at the GAC other than Stella Young, Tom Ballard managed to pace his routine the best, with the least desperation. His material was all quite fresh, even referencing goings on this far into the convention, yet in a way that made his material look as if it had been run through days of polishing, and numerous trial performances.

It made a refreshing difference from the comparatively… aged routine of Ben Elton. (‘How about those spam emails, kids?’)

Ballard of course was preparing the audience for Catherine Deveny.

***

I have to confess I have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to Deveny’s work. When she was sacked as a Fairfaxcolumnist some time back, I was quite open with my belief that she didn’t deserve the column in the first place (which is not to say I thought she deserved nothing).

(Deveny, I am told, was instrumental in gaining what women appearing at the first GAC in Melbourne had in the way of prominence – this prior to involvement with ‘No Chicks, No Excuses’; making Deveny worthy of more than ‘nothing’.)

Her angle in writing, passed off as ‘edgy’, to me comes across as entirely conventional, unsympathetic bogan (aka ‘chav’, aka ‘white trash’) bashing. Odd considering her background – but then again, she’s got new middle class friends to impress now.

Enough of the past, I’ve made my point – I’m prejudiced.

I’ve never seen Deveny live before. I’ve been told not to judge her until I do. Well I have now, and…

…I liked most of her act. It was quite good, especially the moment’s silence for Christopher Hitchens,. during which Hitchens’ quote concerning the overrated reputation of lobster, champagne, anal sex and picnics was displayed on-screen.

‘Maybe he shouldn’t have tried them all at once!’ announced the end of the moment of silence.

I was almost willing to call this performance near-flawless, until the end…

‘But just remember people, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists …. are all human, so treat them with respect. Except the Hindus; they’re cunts! Goodnight!’ (I paraphrase).

At least I won’t have to eat my hat.

I kept my eye on Dawkins and Dennett during this performance, because I could see them more or less, face to face to judge their reactions. Dawkins had loudly applauded an earlier portion of the routine addressing the clerical buggery of children, but he seemed quite disengaged by the end, and while Dennett was politely clapping at the conclusion, he wore an expression that said ‘what was that, that just happened?’

Lost in translation from Strine, exhaustion from jetlag and performing, dislike for crass humour, or all these and more? It’s hard to tell. Something was cool about the way Deveny was received by the horsemen at the final moment.

~ Bruce

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