What does Rolling Stone’s “A Rape On Campus” Mean For Journalism?

On November 19 last year, Rolling Stone published an article titled A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA. It’s an immediately eye-catching title, and one that wedges itself deeply in part of the zeitgeist of American, and in essence international, colleges and universities. The story basically revolves around a person named “Jackie”, a student at the University of Virginia whose actual identity is still not public information.

It’s a harrowing tale. It details an apparent hazing process that Jackie was the victim of, orchestrated by a member of a popular, nation-wide fraternity. According to the article, she was raped seven times by pledges to the fraternity, while her “date” (named Drew in the article) and another watched on and coached them. “Don’t you want to be a brother?” Drew’s quoted as saying. The whole story reads like a college-themed horror movie or think-piece docudrama. Like many, my first reaction to the article was, “How can something like this happen, and only be exposed in a Rolling Stone article?” Well, as we’ve discovered now, it didn’t happen.

Rolling Stone published the article after months of conversation between Jackie and Sabrina Erdely, a staff writer who had been frequently publishing with RS since 2008. Her articles mostly covered various acts of crime, including sexual assaults in the military and weed deals by Beverly Hills debutantes. A Rape On Campus is written in the standard long-form style of Rolling Stone current affairs pieces: a paragraph or two of juicy content, then a whole lot of context and backstory, and then the specific details of the event. But this is where the story begins to fall apart, because the article contains exactly one source: Jackie herself. Now, the very first thing they teach you in journalism school, and for that matter throughout your entire career, is that if you’re going to take on a solid and controversial journalistic subject, you need to cover all bases when it comes to sourcing. This was completely lacking in Erdely’s story, and immediately set off red flags among the industry. Writer and blogger Richard Bradley noted his issues with the article six months ago, addressing his experience with fake journalism and the power of pre-existing biases. But more on that in a bit.

A few weeks ago, the Columbia University School of Graduate Journalism published a response to the RS article after months of research and, probably, debate over journalistic ethics, with dean and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll taking the reigns. It’s damning, and it pretty much backs up Bradley’s original trepidations. Published by RS as an in-house response to their own article, managing editor Will Dana addresses the whole experience as “painful reading” but at the same time “a fascinating document — a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism.” Coll had full access to Erdely’s notes and recordings, and the full editorial detail from the RS offices. It’s hard to see it as anything more than a token effort, however, given the lack of commitment from RS to address what is obviously a failing in their journalistic practice. And that’s the scary part, because when an international magazine as arguably respected as Rolling Stone messes up so classically, there’s issues that need to be addressed in the entire industry.

The passage of a story from idea to publication is a layered process. After research, interviewing, compilation and eventually drafting, the journalist will file the story with their office. It then passes through various stages of sub-editing – in an ideal situation, around three or four subs, which include proofing, fact-checking and content editing – before reaching the editors. When it comes to a full-feature article, it’s usually expected that more than one editor will green-light it before publication. So, in essence, a proper newsroom will have a number of checks and balances in place to prevent fictitious or inaccurate stories from reaching print. Apparently, very little of this happened with the Rape On Campus story.

Erdely’s article is full of inaccuracies. In March, the Charlottesville Police Department announced that there were no leads available to pursue after a four-month investigation of the original article. The man who Jackie quoted as the alleged mastermind did not exist: according to her (now ex) friends, Jackie had previously named another man who was in her chemistry class. That person was found to have not been able to be in the same place as the alleged rape. And then there’s Jackie’s apparent secrecy towards Erdely. Both the original article and the response are peppered with mysterious denials and refusals from Jackie on information that you’d think would be integral to the story. But, again, this is a story of emotion and reaction, and emotion often and unfortunately beats common sense in dangerous circumstances.

Therein lies the big issue – beyond any one person’s fault – that lead to the article being published: it was so tied into a construct of ennui and stigma we build around people like the stereotypical “rich, white, preppy boys” that inhabit colleges and universities. It’s a story that has appeared in countless books and movies, and it’s built on a culture of fear. Fear of secret societies, fear of the recklessness of youth, fear of the power granted to certain individuals, especially men over women. It’s not too hard to believe the story, which at least lends some credence to just how it could’ve gotten this far.

The fallout from the story is far-reaching and destructive. The University Of Virginia and the fraternity involved suffered innumerable threats, protests and sleights against them, all from one unfounded accusation. According to Steven Scipione, chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi – the fraternity in question, “It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.” Erdely’s reputation as a journalist is most likely ruined. She’s been a regular contributor to GQ, Self, The New Yorker and others as well as Rolling Stone, but it’s hard to see her getting work with many of them after this. But more than anything, there’s two dangerously polarising ethical issues that we probably won’t get over for a while: false rape allegations – which is entirely different story –  and the indelible hole made in the space between writer and reader that exposes the ever-growing vulnerability of the media industry.

Both Coll and Bradley have addressed that, had the RS newsroom been one 15 years ago, it’s more likely the issue could’ve been avoided. Both are respected journalists end editors, and both coincidentally mention the “old days” of completely print-based journalism and the age-old system that was set up to accommodate it. We don’t have that luxury anymore. The editors at RS know as much as anyone that there is constant, knife-edge pressure applied from the now-immediate news cycle and society’s hunger for instantaneous information. It’s clear that, given enough time and scrutiny, the story would either have been heavily altered or dismissed entirely, because the failures in practice that lead to its publication were not just avoidable, but were easy to avoid. How difficult is it to find out if a certain fraternity member even exists? Or if anyone out of a room of nine people not including the alleged victim, were actual people? How about any witnesses at the party? How about the leadership of the fraternity, or the university, or any of Jackie’s friends? These should’ve all been critical issues for Erdely and RS’s editorial team, but they were forgotten in the face of the emotional impact of the story and the generally no-time-to-stop-and-think scenario modern media has become.

The editor of The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, Ashby Jones, sums up the issue pretty succinctly from an old-guard publication point of view:

“They’ve done studies on blogs that show two of the quickest ways to lose readers are to post too much or post too little. So you’re constantly trying to put up the right number of items every day. And most of the time you don’t run the risk of putting up too much because you’re busy, so you run the risk of not putting up enough – and so when you have something, you want to put it up quickly. And sometimes there’s breaking news in there – and it’s hard, and getting harder and harder with blogs and other online news outlets, to be the first to break news. S you’re constantly battling competing impulses: On the one hand, you want to be the first to get something up; on the other, you’ve got to make sure that everything adheres to the rigorous sort of ethical standards the Journal abides by. And so that is something I feel pretty acutely – and that, I think, is one of the bigger challenges to me.”

 It’s clear that Rolling Stone were feeling the pressures of immediacy when they published Erdely’s story. When they commissioned her to write it, there were already a number of high-profile rape cases at universities around the country, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Vanderbilt and Florida State. It would be completely unfair to assume that Rolling Stone wanted to jump on the bandwagon when it came to the tragedy of alleged rape on college campuses, but it is fair to say that the magazine, and Erdely, wished to express a point of view on what was a very controversial subject. The essence of journalism has always been about giving the readers what they want, albeit with an angle they might not have thought about. This, in essence, is what Rolling Stone were doing, and to my mind they got caught up in the immediate impact of the story without questioning whether or not there was enough factual evidence. This is not just speculation, either: both Coll and Dana directly addressed the obvious faults in RS’s procedure that came from a lack of thoughtful process. An extremely critical pessimist may even look upon Coll’s RS-published response as a cheap way to cash in on their own mistake, but I think it’s much deeper than that. I think Dana and the entire RS editorial team are now taking a chance to stand up and address the white elephant in the room: that current journalistic practice is either suffering under the pressures of new technology, or is too archaic and old-minded for the current state of media. Or both.

Jon Ronson, the guy behind The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test, recently published a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which details various people’s experiences with being demonized through mass media. It begins with the popularity of public shaming in Colonial America, and ends around now, when Justine Sacco (the “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” journalist) and, in a very current boost to book sales, the Rolling Stone Virginia University fiasco. His general angle seems to be that public shaming, and the media’s ability to accentuate such shaming, isn’t a new thing. What is new is the ability of practically anyone to denounce a story that is untrue. And this occurs if only for the immediate and unavoidable accessibility of anything that’s published, if it has any online presence. This is extremely healthy for the journalism industry, as it works as yet another check against faulty journalistic practice. But it is always, as Ashby Jones says, tempered by the fact that the internet age is an age of now. Journalists today are caught between the necessity of journalistic ethics and the immediacy of the daily news cycle, and ultimately their audience’s attention spans.

The word that has been bandied around pretty frequently in the conversation of the Virginia University is “avoidable”. It’s clear in everyone’s mind that it would’ve been a very simple thing to avoid this mistake. More than that, it would have been adhering to the standards of journalistic ethics that were established more than a century ago. But, like so many things, we’re now finding that those old cornerstones are crumbling away, and it’s up to the current industry to catch up the exponential growth of new media. If this whole issue teaches us anything, it shouldn’t be that standards are slipping. It should instead be that there is a new standard, and that journalists, editors and even the audience have a responsibility to adapt.

Lost Inside Yourself: My Experience With Depression

“You see, your brain is made up of two hemispheres, each a replica of the other,” he explained as he pushed his two fists together. “But then, you also have the frontal cortex of each hemisphere, which divides your brain again. And in each cortex, different things happen.” His hands remained pressed together in a strange, fingery facsimile of my mind. He drew his finger around each section. “The left cortex controls logical thinking. Rationalism, mathematics, that kind of thing. It’s also associated with positivity. Positive actions, positive ideas. Now, the right cortex” – he looks over his glasses as he switches hands – “The right frontal cortex is the emotional center. So feelings, in general. It’s also a primal part of the brain, responsible for a lot of our survival instincts. With that comes the negative aspects that counteract the positive cortex. Anxiety, stress, mistrust. These are your problems. Your brain has become too reliant on the negative, and has forgotten the positive.”

I was sitting in an annoyingly clinical surgery room, listening to a psychologist explain what’s wrong with my brain. He was also a neuroscientist, and obviously a deeply intelligent expert in his craft. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s about the sixth or seventh shrink I’ve seen over the years who, in various slightly different ways, has explained to me what’s wrong with my brain. It’s apparently an effective way to deal with depression and anxiety issues. The theory is, supplying a perfectly simple explanation to a depressive as to why they feel shit all the time will grant them some sense of perspective. It’s a noble and, in theory, effective way of dealing with it. But at the same time, believing that kind of thing is guaranteed to work means putting faith in some kind of regularity and stability. And, funnily enough, regularity and stability are barely things that ever enter your mind when you’re depressed.

I think I probably know one or two things on your mind as you read this. You’re thinking that this is just another diatribe on depression in a climate that’s already full of diatribes on depression. You may also be thinking, “Oh god, he’s whinging about depression on the internet”. And you’re probably right. I’m not writing this to really make you think or feel anything about depression as a disease that you don’t already know. Personally, it’s more of a cathartic experience than anything. It’s an attempt to legitimize things for myself, and a way of rationalizing the stuff that goes on in my head, in a way. At this stage of my life I feel I understand more about it, and that it’s not healthy to deny its existence. On the other hand, I know how uncomfortable it is for anyone to hear someone seriously talk about the issue. And yeah, publishing something that’s supposed to be for myself is probably pretty conceited, but if you are to learn anything about depression from what I’m saying, then that’s good.

I’ve had chronic depression since the age of 16. I try to avoid using the word “suffer” when talking about it, because I don’t like to put depression in the light of a disease. It’s less than that and more than that at the same time. On an average day in an average year, depression is simply not as limiting as a disease, and that’s something that often goes through the depressive’s mind. That is, until they find themselves unable to get out of bed for hours upon hours, and they realize something is terribly wrong. It’s an insidious illness, partly for the reason that you never know, day by day, how much you’re going to be affected by the weird tangents of your brain. I associate this with a lot of the misunderstanding with depression. When someone sees someone with depression getting on with their day in a relative sense of ease and satisfaction, it’s easy – and probably totally appropriate – to assume that they’re fine. But depression is an internal illness, not an external one, and one that depressives spend a lot of time – probably too much time – trying to hide from the people around them.

I spent many years hiding my depression from everyone around me. Even my mum, who has always been the most constant support to me. One thing that non-depressives might have trouble understanding is the level upon level of fantasy depressives often build up in their mind. You’ll often hear these strange trains of thought when it comes to depression: “No-one cares about me”; “There’s no point me going outside, there’s nothing out there for me”; “There’s no point living any more, I’ve got nothing to live for”. In any context, these statements seem ridiculous. And they are, but they seem true when your brain is so screwed up. One thing I’ve heard a lot from talking to other people with depression in various states of recovery is that there’s a futility where you see everything around you, everything that’s happening in your head, as the actual truth. A lot of the stories I’ve heard revolve around the underlying, obsessive thought that this is what life is really like. It’s not happy, and people are not happy to see you. The world is terrifying, and your depression has lifted the veil on that fact. Which, of course, is the complete opposite of reality. But when your brain tells you it’s so, it’s pretty hard to not believe it.

This, obviously, all puts a strain on your relationships. The futility of trying to explain what you’re thinking and feeling is ever-apparent; it’s kind of a combination of not thinking anyone would be able to help you, and the firm belief that no-one wants to. What doesn’t help this, although it’s completely unavoidable, is that everyone looks at you differently when they know you have depression, despite how caring and helpful any individual person might be towards it. Ever since I was first open about my depression, I’ve always been of the mind that explaining your condition to other people is one of the most important steps in recovery. But a deep sense of exposing yourself goes along with that, a feeling of making yourself vulnerable to those around you. And the first stages of that, of trying to explain that you’re essentially sick, is one of the most difficult things you can do at any point in life. I guess it is that difficult because you don’t really know what’s going on in your brain yourself. As I mentioned earlier, no matter how many times someone with a doctorate will try to explain exactly what’s wrong with you on a physical level, it never completely accommodates the issues you face on a day-to-day basis. And being so negative all the time leads to those negative viewpoints on life: distrust, anxiety, immense sadness. And it’s pretty hard being on the outside of that, trying to work out what’s wrong with the person you care so much about.

One of the most important things to me when I’ve been at my lowest points is the relationships I have with the people who I care about the most, and who care about me the most, even though that’s a really difficult thing to believe in those moments of time. And that, in a true vicious circle of depression, puts an unavoidable weight on those relationships. Whilst my parents have always been a constant comfort, because they kind of have to be as my parents, there’s been relationships that haven’t been able to deal with the strain of the person I become when I’m down – often swinging between angry, manic and despondent, much more likely to drink and take drugs, and fairly out of touch with reality at times. It’s hard to find anyone to blame but yourself when those things happen, which can very easily drive you further down. One thing that experts on depression and anxiety issues always talk about is how the present and the future are always big problems. What I feel doesn’t get enough coverage in these cases is just how crippling the constant thoughts of the past always are. I’ve had to deal with the fact that regret and guilt are constant emotions I feel, and no matter how many times someone tells me that worrying the past is useless, it’s often something I can’t escape. The breakdown of relationships is central to that, because when you spend so much time feeling inadequate, feeling that you’re responsible for ruining something so special to you – and, probably, special to the other person in said relationship – becomes a prominent part of your own self-worth. And yes, of course, everyone goes through that kind of thing after a break-up, for instance. You spend some time feeling absolutely shit, then some time crazy, then some more time pretty down, and then you eventually get over it. I’d like to think that around six months is enough time to get through that, but a lot of the stories I’ve heard from other depressives revolve around making that failure of being a normal, lovable person a central part of their character. “She/he didn’t want to be with me, why would anyone else?”

As important as maintaining relationships is keeping a motivated, working lifestyle. Being idle is one of the biggest traps with depression and, as with a lot of the other stuff I’ve mentioned, it’s a double-edged coin. It becomes increasingly difficult to stay motivated and constructive when you’re in the throes of depression, and this will most likely effect your work ethic. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll probably still feel responsible. I had a large dive in my career halfway through 2014, and I associate this heavily with my last bout of depression.  Not that it’s the only reason: any downward movement in your usual life can throw you back into depression, no matter how minor or major. But it definitely had a big effect on my self-worth. The career that I had aimed myself towards for years was seemingly falling apart around me, and I had no control over it.

So basically, depression is an illness of negativity. It has little physical symptoms until its most excessive stages, when the inability to get out of bed, shower, get dressed and face the world become more and more frequent. It mostly resides in the non-physical brain, or the ego. It’s an illness of personality and vitality. That’s what we know. But we’re still finding new stuff out all the time, and the push to truly understand what depression is has been accelerating for a while now. Whilst I do take those simple, scientific explanations with a grain of salt, there’s no doubt to me that it works, because anything involving positive thinking usually works. And knowing that what’s wrong with you possibly does have a physical explanation is the first step. What you do from there is really up to what kind of person you are, how you’re depression manifests itself, and what you’re willing to do next.

I’ve been on various antidepressant medications, probably around three or four in various different dosages. A lot of the people I look up to in terms of dealing with depression – writers, comedians, other people in artistic careers who usually use their issues as material – talk about the moment when they realized that medication and psychology were most likely going to have to be a part of their lives forever on. That’s a very difficult stage to reach, obviously, because you’re pretty much admitting to yourself that you’re never going to get well by yourself. But at the same time, it’s also an admittance that you can get well, and that you can have a fairly “normal” life, science willing.

For me, medication has always been a pretty controversial subject. When I was 17, it felt like a joke, but a big part of that was the rebellious, “fuck you, authority” a lot of us have at that age. I went on and off meds every six months and so. I’d go on them for a while, get sick of it, go off them, go back down and eventually get prescribed another dosage or medication. That was yet another vicious circle, but even now I feel that it’s very important, from a personal perspective, to be cautious when taking a medication that effects your brain. There’s a huge range of antidepressants on the market, from a range of different companies and countries. Some have been used for decades, others in only the last few years and hold that vibe of experimental treatment. But in essence, they all do one thing: they change who you are, and what you feel. Basically, these medications “balance out” the hormone uptake of your brain, supplying you with a much more level sense of emotion and thought. The downside to this is that you stop getting the bouts of mania and creativity that fuels so much of your work. I have often found myself staring at my computer screen, unable to come up with any creative ideas, and eventually being pretty resigned to that fact. In essence, you have to give up a part of yourself in order to get better. That’s a really hard thing for a lot of people with depression to deal with, and one of the obstacles that the ones who choose to stay on medication have to get over. For myself, it’s something I still think about a fair bit. I’ve been on some good meds, and I’ve been on some terrible meds. Again, it’s a thing that completely depends on the context and the person with depression, because no two reactions are going to be the same.

On the other side, there’s psychological treatment. While I took this about as seriously as popping pills every day when I was younger, I’ve become much more advocating of treatment. Even if just for the basic fact that you’re talking to someone about your problems. That’s a massive weight off your shoulders, especially when you’ve reached a stage of complete withdrawal, unable to accept that anyone will accept or understand what’s wrong with you. That kind of thing leads to the lowest of low points, and in many cases to suicide. So the amount of help available out there – and there is a lot of it these days – is incredibly important. Again, it’s always going to be difficult to make yourself so vulnerable, but that’s part of the treatment. You have to break yourself down to build up again, as cliché as that might sound.

For me, recovery has become a pretty simple yet disciplined set of processes. I go running at least once a day, usually twice. I try to learn a few new things every day, and meet a few new people every day. I make myself get up early, and I make myself leave the house. Some days these things are completely natural. On others, they’re the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I have to constantly remind myself that they will make me feel better, and that I will definitely get a sense of satisfaction out of them, moreso than lying in bed and staring into the middle distance.

I’ve seen and felt the worst of what depression can do to somebody. But I’ve also come to understand that depression, and all mental disorders, need to be addressed and accepted as part of your life if you’re ever going to move forward. I still have days where I don’t see any way out, but then, at some point, there’ll be something small that will make everything seem just a little bit better. And that’s just the start.

Is Internet Media Creating Home-Grown Terrorists?

In December last year, the ever-discussed media piece of Islamic State released information on what they considered a ‘coup’ against their Western enemies: the inclusion of a white, middle-class kid into their ranks. Jake Bilardi, a young man from Victoria, disappeared from his family home, only to appear in ISIL propaganda videos months later. Not long after, he was dead, having blown himself up in a truck in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. Between then and now, the “AAAAH, TERROR” parts of the Australian and British media have been constantly on the case of just how a 19 year-old from Melbourne’s northern suburbs, with no history of extremism, could end up with one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations in the world.

From a purely journalistic standpoint, the above photo is gold both for IS and Western media. It’s a striking and surprising image, a white teenager propped between two stereotypically masculine, intense IS members. For IS, this is exactly the kind of thing they need to connect to what is quickly becoming a key demographic for them: young, disenfranchised men predominantly from countries that are in literal war with them. After all, there’s no better way to undermine your enemy than to appeal directly to their children.

For the news media, the image of a normal white kid in IS is a gold mine, because it plays on people’s inherent fears about Islam and terrorism: that it’s only a matter of time until they start indoctrinating our kids and taking over our lives. That’s what they keep telling us in their videos, and that’s what news networks rely on to keep us attached to the existence of IS. Fear is a big driver and motive in modern news, and the fact that a son from a non-Muslim family – from a very moderate part of the world – can become involved with a terrorist organisation hits close to home.

And this isn’t just a freak occurrence, either. Abdullah Elmir, aka “The Ginger Jihadist”, became worldwide news last year when he appeared in an IS video, claiming that they will destroy their Western enemies. And a couple of weeks ago, two brothers – aged 16 and 17 – were stopped at Sydney Airport when authorities got suspicious. They were travelling to Turkey – a common hub for people travelling to join various Middle Eastern conflicts – and their bags contained various pieces of “extremist paraphernalia” and literature on how to fool authorities into not thinking you’re about to end up between a video camera, a Quran and an IS flag, AK in hand.

Again, gold for journalists. Despite the obvious lack of information available on two minors allegedly trying to become terrorists, it’s a story that sticks with you. It also hints, whether factual or not, at a growing trend amongst young Australian men to pack up their bags and join IS. So why exactly are these young, middle-class men joining a cause so culturally and socially set apart from their lives that their friends are considered targets?

According to at least one Australian Islamic leader, Western media itself is to blame. From the article:

“They take the western media and they blame them a lot and it makes them turn away from Australian and Australian culture. That’s one of the biggest reasons why people go over there,” said Abu Zaid, a committee member at the Hume Islamic Youth Centre, where Mr Bilardi sometimes went to hear lectures.

Abu Zaid – who is, importantly, giving a perspective from Australia’s Muslim youth – goes on to argue that our general reaction to the news of some kid getting on a plane and joining IS is overblown, and that the usual judgement call we fall on when we see something like this – that a vulnerable kid was brainwashed by a bunch of media-savvy extremists into taking up arms – is basically flawed.

“Isn’t all Australian culture about freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of all this? Why is it OK, for example, for the Jews to recruit kids from here to go and fight in Israel and no one make any fuss about that, but then one person under the name of Muslim – maybe he’s Muslim, maybe he’s not Muslim – to go and fight overseas in what he believes in, even if it’s wrong? …  a person has an idea in his mind, he believes it’s right, he should fight for what he believes in.”\

 

Jake Bilardi allegedly died for what he believed in, according to ISIL. He killed himself and destroyed a few cars, but nothing more. According to the head of the Iraqi Defense Forces, Jake’s attack was completely inconsequential.

All in all, the story of Jake Bilardi, from leaving Australian to his death, was a matter of months. From sitting in his bedroom in Craigieburn to dead on the streets of an Iraqi city. It’s sad, no matter how you look at it, and a condemnation against a lot of cultural practices, both in the regions of the world where movements like IS are allowed to thrive, but also within our own borders. I don’t think Abu Zaid was being too insensitive in his comments about Bilardi, but was instead pessimistic. It had happened; they had already gotten their hooks in him, and he was already in Iraq. It was only a matter of time.

Obviously, Abu Zaid’s opinion grates against a lot of public sentiment, but his message is an important one. Especially in times of war, the black-and-white mentality of “us versus them” carries a lot of weight, and it becomes easy to simplify things to the level of a “death cult” roping in young, impressionable men. What Abu Zaid and a lot of other Islamic leaders are apparently trying to do, while still maintaining a clear opposition to the actions of IS, is make us think about how our own methods of doing things are causing people like Jake to throw themselves into what we would describe as a violent extremist lifestyle.

The questions of how and why Bilardi joined IS and wasted his life are now under a much larger amount of scrutiny, as countless news pieces expose various parts of his life. But the indoctrination and eventual tragic death of Jake Bilardi is not just some freak occurance, but is rather symptomatic of the often convoluted war of ideology that is happening across our TV and computer screens.

Recently, Four Corners investigated the high number of Chechen immigrants in Austria travelling to Syria to join ISIL’s fight. A conservative Muslim diaspora, the Chechen immigrants (mostly based in Vienna) are something of a control case for those people most vulnerable to the romantic image of extremism. Two brisk wars against Russia had effectively destroyed Cechnya, and the amount of men in Cechen society plummeted. The refugees who fled to places like Vienna were largely young, without fathers, and stranded in a country that barely accepts them. Vienna itself is split between the far-right Freedom Party and carious ant-fascist groups, with regular clashes on the streets. It’s a perfect storm for ISIL recruiters: an entire group of young Muslim men, without fathers and completely disassociated from their home and culture, save for a few imams that are very capable of persuasion.

According to various reports, the majority of Austrian nationals who have joined ISIL were Chechen refugees. Other countries with large Chechen diasporas, namely Turkey, have seen large numbers of young men and women pick up and leave as well. If anything, this is proof that the coercion of young Muslim men is a far-reaching issue, and that organisations like ISIL are skilled at picking the prime targets: those with anger and resentment towards the alien society they find themselves in, a lack of fatherly guidance, and unhindered access to the internet.

Dr Anne Aly is a research fellow at Curtin University and head of the Countering Online Violent Extremism Research Program. She has spent a great deal of time dissecting ISIL and similar organisation’s presence on the internet and, as can be unfortunately expected, it’s not simply a case of one-way brainwashing. Like most things on the internet, there’s a whole lot of grey area.

“The organisations are very internet savvy,” Aly says. “IS is all over social media and able to reach young people through various channels. However, we also need to be cautious about making assumptions about their influence too. Some, if not most, young people drawn to IS will actually reach out to them and make contact that way. Also, we need to consider that fact that, although they have a strong media presence as well as a high profile in the international media, there is still a vast majority of young people who reject them.”

But there is still that minority of vulnerable youths who will fall under the spell of ISIL. The organisation’s sophistication in terms of media outreach has only increased with their exposure in the media, and they’ve become well-versed in using the news media as a tool against the very countries that host it. The infamously regular release of beheading videos by ISIL – the latest showing eight Syrian soldiers being decapitated in Hama – are staged as direct rebuttals to the way in which ISIL is supposedly portrayed by the media. It’s pretty ironic to defend yourself as an organisation by beheading people, but that’s just how ISIL operates. It’s even getting to the point where involved countries, including Australia and the US, are releasing ironic propaganda videos themselves to apparently lighten the immediate impact of ISIL propaganda.

But it’s not just these videos which are brainwashing young men. The ISIL media platform has become one operational on many different levels, and one that appeals to many different facets of ideology.

“It’s just one part of the equation,” Aly says. “Disaffection and distrust of mainstream ‘Western’ media means that young people will turn to alternative sources of information which they do trust- including some of the propaganda of IS. They will dismiss mainstream media reports as being bias and having a Western agenda. This means that reports of IS brutality are often dismissed as anti-IS propaganda and makes the IS propaganda more appealing.”

It’s a confusing and frustrating state of affairs, but it’s pretty hard to see an alternative when the average 19 year-old is bombarded daily with information from Syria and Iraq, especially if a large amount of that information is coming from the people directly involved in the conflict. It’s incredibly hard to tell just what aspects of the ISIL propaganda machine are attractive to any one individual, but it’s obvious that more needs to be done to understand just how integral media accessibility is to ISIL’s ability to reach a worldwide audience.

“[Government agencies were] not prepared at all,” Aly says. “In fact the entire world was not prepared. The impact of IS and their ability to attract people was completely underestimated. Part of this is because there is little understanding of how young people become radicalised online or what that even means. More research is desperately needed to understand this phenomenon and the mechanisms of radicalisation- particularly in the online space.”

While Australia has focussed on heavy-handed enforcement, it’s obvious that a different approach needs to be implemented to cut off ISIL’s ability to reach teenagers in their own bedrooms as soon as possible. The constant exposure to media on the various wars in the Middle East, whether it be from our own country or from ISIL, has some kind of measurable affect on kids like Jake Bilardi.

“We already have a strong enforcement framework- in fact our approach is too heavily focussed on enforcement,” Aly says. “We need to balance this with more strategies that address the root causes of violent extremism as a social issue. This means that we need to look at why people are attracted in the first place and we need to develop social change initiatives to address this attraction and appeal. Law enforcement has a place but when it is the only approach, it can also be counterproductive because it can make young people feel targeted and make them more disaffected.”

The death of Jake Bilardi, as well as others like him from around the world, is a tragedy. It’s a simple matter to look at an organisation like ISIL and agree that Bilardi was simply a poster boy, a young white man willing to commit jihad to further their goals. Its stuff like this that makes you stop and think, and it should be stuff like this that makes us think twice about exactly how we handle domestic and international media, and how we send the right message when kids can receive whatever message they want to, as long as there is someone willing to share it with them.

 

Australia’s Eurovision Hopefuls By The Numbers

I’m the only straight man I know who actually enjoys watching Eurovision, as far as I know. I understand how much the yearly song contest has become a matter of pride for the gay community, as well it should, but I’ve always wondered why it has never found more of a mainstream audience. I mean, it’s as over-the-top and fan-serving as any other show on television, and there’s the added schadenfreude that comes with the whole traditional division between the Baltic and ex-Soviet states. It’s like a history documentary wrapped in a ballgown made from gold foil and covered in Christmas lights.

YOU MAY CALL ME SANTA KLAŰS

YOU MAY CALL ME SANTA KLAŰS!

Now, with Australia’s official entry into Eurovision, it looks like there’s gonna be a whole new wave of interest in the show. Last year’s guest spot obviously made a good impression on the gaggle of eccentric European nobles that head Eurovision, with Jessica Mauboy pretty much killing it voice-wise in a competition that’s more often all about epilepsy-inducing lasers and the back-up dancers’ abilities to dodge pyrotechnics. There’s a lot of mixed feelings to be had about all this, if you want to get all serious about it. For instance, is this all some kind of draconian attempt to re-attach ourselves to the colonial European world of the past? Or is this all some clever ploy to create a pathway for Australian artists to reach mainstream European audiences? While I hope the latter comes into it somehow, I think it more stems from our apparent inability to avoid anything that’s as eye-numbingly ostenatatious and campy as Eurovision is.

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Nope. No idea.

Without any official artist announced, there’s been a slew of acts thrown around on social media as potential representatives. I’ve boiled them down to the top few most likely, and have judged them all on a VERY SPECIFIC set of categories that I’ve developed over a few years of watching Eurovision, drunk and alone. They are:

CAMPINESS: The ability of the artist or act to meet the very high standards of Eurovision in areas of choreography, spectacle and overwrought sexual energy.

RELATABILITY: The ability of the artist or act to relate to European audiences in areas of family history, personality and “consitution” (ability to hold liquor)

AUSSIENESS: The ability of the artist or act in fairly and proudly representing Australian audiences in the areas of patriotism, character and love of beer and meat pies.

POLITICAL CONTENTION:  The ability of the artist or act in causing a major political coup between the traditionally participating states, merely by their presence.

Each category will be marked out of ten, and at the end of it we should have a pretty reliable idea of who will represent us in what is, let’s face it, the Colosseum of the modern age.

FIRST CANDIDATE: KYLIE MINOGUE

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Yep, that’ll do.

Kylie Minogue is 46 years old, and she still have a fantastic arse. I have no idea how that plays into her chances – i really just wanted to share a fact that was a strong developmental driver during my adolescence – but it really should, because Kylie’s behind area is a beutiful, beautiful metaphor for her career. Throughout the last 20 or so years, she’s pretty much stayed at the top of her game, so it’s pretty easy to see why she’s an immediate favourite. Order of the British Empire; the key character in an Australian soap episode watched by over 20 million people; 16 goddamn ARIAs on top of her Hall Of Fame spot; the main catalyst in a generation of Australian women named “Charlene”. She’s an Australian icon, but how do the numbers add up?

CAMPINESS: Kylie Minogue is probably the biggest icon in the Australian pride movement. Her music, style and general artistry measure out into the amount of people shouting “WOOOOOOO” at her shows. SCORE: 9/10

RELATABILITY: She lives in London, starred in one of our more famed televisual exports to the UK, and has toured countless times through Europe. She also has a great arse, which I’ve heard is popular in Europe. SCORE: 7/10

AUSSIENESS: She’s a great representative of Australia, what with all her philanthropy and great arse and all. She was also in The Delinquents and The Wiggles Go Bananas, so full Aussie acting credit. But she obviously doesn’t eat many pies. Not enough meat pies? I’ll leave that up to you. SCORE: 6/10

POLITICAL CONTENTION: It’s pretty hard to see Kylie making any kind of aggressive statement at Eurovision. Unless Come Into My World is mistakenly interpreted as an invitation to invade. SCORE: 2/10

OVERALL SCORE: 24/40

SECOND CANDIDATE: JESSICA MAUBOY

638701-jessica-mauboyJessica Mauboy’s a clear frontrunner on account of her performance last year. Either that or she’s automatically disqualified because she performed last year. Hey, that’s showbusiness.

CAMPINESS: She was in The Sapphires, which I guess is a pretty campy movie. Again, she’s very attractive as well, but I don’t think she can match the sequins-and-lens-flare count of Kylie. SCORE: 4/10

RELATABILITY: Being Indigenous earns her points straight away here, because if there’s one thing Europeans are waiting for from Australia, it’s probably a bit more traditional culture and a lot less drunk bogans pissing on statues of famous generals. SCORE: 6/10

AUSSIENESS: Her dad’s an Indonesian immigrant, her mother’s Indigenous, she was born in Darwin, she got in to Australian Idol through the Alice Springs audition, plus the Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae. She couldn’t be more Australian if she completely ironically wore a shirt that said “Fuck off, We’re Full”. SCORE: 9/10

POLITICAL CONTENTION:  Jessica Mauboy is about as cute and inoffensive as recording artists get, so she’s a pretty safe bet for not causing sociopolitical rifts across borders. And I don’t think there’s that many racists involved with Eurovision. At least I hope there aren’t. SCORE: 2/10

OVERALL SCORE: 21/40

THIRD CANDIDATE: THE WIGGLES

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Wait, who the fuck are those people?

If you don’t know who The Wiggles are, you may as well get the fuck out of Australia right now, because we don’t need that kind of negativity right now. The Wiggles have been Australia’s pre-eminent child entertainment performance act for around 76 years or something, and show no signs of slowing down unless you count all the random amateur actors who have filled in the various roles. I don’t like to talk about it too much, because it just reminds me that Geoff’s narcolepsy obviously became an overwhelming problem for him.

CAMPINESS: Well, there’s the blindingly colourful skivvies, the choreographed dance routines, the exacerbated hand movements, the weird sexual tension between blue skivvie guy and the dinosaur… yeah, pretty camp. SCORE: 7/10

RELATABILITY: I have it on good account that psychadelic drugs are very popular in Europe, especially around the Mediterranean, so I imagine four brightly-attired people rhythmically wiggling in unison while a dinosaur waters plants and a pirate dry-humps the stage setting will go down a treat. SCORE: 7/10

AUSSIENESS: Love them or hate them, The Wiggles have pretty much raised a generation through their songs and performances. Yes, I know your musical awakening was probably your drunk dad blasting A New World Record while screaming, “Jeff Lynn is a fucking GENIUS”, just like me, but many more have Hot Potato and Big Red Car as nostalgic moments. SCORE: 8/10

POLITICAL CONTENTION:  Now here’s a problem: with so many different partisan movements happening in Europe at the moment, a bunch of guys who all wear different coloured shirts might cause a bit of confusion. You may think it’s a bit far-fetched, but a band of Fascist Democratic Royalist Star Trek extras might not go down well with certain countries. SCORE: 7/10

OVERALL SCORE: 29/40

FOURTH CANDIDATE: MIDNIGHT OIL

"Goddammit Peter, this is the last time I try to break into Kirribilli with you."

“Goddammit Peter, this is the last time I try to break into Kirribilli with you.”

Joining a long list of luminaries including Angry Anderson and, well, not too many other people, Midnight Oil’s frontman Peter Garrett is one of the Australian musicians most likely to permanently blind the Eurovision crowd when all those lasers bounce of his domed head. Midnight Oil boil down (get it? because its oil? I think you boil oil) everything about Australia into beige casual evening shirts, wide-shots of dried-out creek beds and a dancing style straight from the bowels of hell.

CAMPINESS: Midnight Oil managed to keep up with the latest of styles in the 80’s and 90’s, if you count looking like a lonely science teacher as fashionable. Peter Garrett looks too much like a dick, literally, to be tongue-in-cheek in any way. Yes, I know that sentence sounds weird. SCORE: 4/10

RELATABILITY: I remember the first time I saw Midnight Oil. I was about six, and I was watching Rage. It scared the living shit out of me. Something to do with Peter Garrett’s resemblance to the eyeball monster from Pan’s Labyrinth  and the fact he sounds like if Nigel Thornbury huffing ether put me right off. I imagine this will be the same reaction Eurovision audiences would have. SCORE: 2/10

AUSSIENESS: Do you own an Akubra? Does it have corks hanging form it? How about a Driza-Bone? Do you regularly eat damper, bush turnips and wallabies? Do you drink billy tea out of a dead dingo’s dick? Well shut the hell up, because you’re still nowhere near as Australian as Midnight Oil. SCORE: 10/10

POLITICAL CONTENTION:  Garrett was environment minister, and while his time in the role will forever be remembered by that emoticon of shrugging shoulders, holding a cabinet position probably earns you a bit of polarizing status in Eurovision. I can only imagine that Garrett’s environmental message will be lost in the judge’s fears that he will enter their houses through their nightmares and feast on their firstborn children. I’m pretty sure he does that, it wasn’t just special effects in that movie. SCORE: 8/10

OVERALL SCORE: 24/40

FIFTH CANDIDATE: TISM

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I TOLD YOU THIS WAS SERIOUS, MUM

Ahhh, TISM. Just yesterday, I shouted in unironic shock when I found out one of my housemates had never heard of them. “How can you not know who TISM is?” I said. And TISM is a favourite of many other conceited arseholes like me. Apart from that, they’re utterly unique, and like many contemporaries have found that if you cover your face on stage, you can get away with pretty much whatever the fuck you want. At least it doesn’t take nine of them to make shitty nu-metal.

CAMPINESS: Seven men, in matching suits and ski masks, screaming about River Phoenix’s overdose while smashing guitar pedals against their genitals? I’m no expert, but that’s Pink Flamingoes-level camp in my book. SCORE: 10/10

RELATABILITY: Have you seen the news lately? Go turn it on to SBS now. Give it some time and you’re sure to see some youth in a cardigan and ad-hoc facial covering throwing chunks of limestone at riot police. That’s a lot of Europe right now. TISM take that same rebellious energy, but direct it into songs about being caught wanking and such. There’s not much difference, there’s still a lot of emotional confusion going on in both situations. As a wise man once said, “It’s not where your anger comes from, but which hole you decide to push it out from, that makes you a man.” SCORE: 9/10

AUSSIENESS: How Australian do you want to getSCORE: 10/10

POLITICAL CONTENTION:  Look, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but if TISM do manage to make it to Eurovision (like a scary amount of people want them to), then we can pretty much say goodbye to Western Europe, because there are few bands capable of turning zeitgeist into violent surrealism like TISM. But, since I used that exact idea as one of my categories, it looks like we must be responsible for global catastrophe if we really want to make an impression. SCORE: 10/10

OVERALL SCORE: 39/40

Well, by a clear margin, this totally scientific process has resulted in TISM being the clear favourite. And that can mean only one thing: with the odds on that Australia will somehow win the fucking thing, it’s only a matter of time until mum actually agrees that this is indeed serious. Should probably let TISM themselves take this out:

What I’ve Learnt From 14 pages, Two Minutes and Twenty-Six Seconds Of Fifty Shades Of Grey

“I managed to get about two pages in, but the writing is just too terrible. The language and grammar don’t make sense. It’s just awful.”

That’s my mum’s one and only reaction to the content of Fifty Shades Of Grey, the book by E.L “Frumpy-housewife-mascarading-as-author” James. And if you think that I’m being sexist by immediately attacking some middle-aged woman for earning millions of dollars from her rape fantasy, then fuck you. Harsh, I know, but this whole “book about S&M turned into cashcow film” thing going on really irks me. And, as I’ll talk about in a bit, a lot of that still has to do with sexism.

Now, my mum is a great writer and lover of actual good literature, but she does have a slightly unsettling attachment to pulp romantic novels. The amount of times a went through that massive bookcase only to find another crudely-drawn image of Fabio on a pirate ship or rollercoaster or near-future space station (seriously, it exists) goes into the hundreds. I’ve never told her this, but some of my first exposures to literature were through the tacky, earnest vernacular of Mills & Boon novels. Probably goes some way to explain what’s wrong with me now, I guess.

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I’m sorry, what?

So to hear her describe Fifty Shades Of Grey as awful came as a slight surprise. I’d heard it was bad, but not to the extent it would even turn off my mum’s sick obsession with literal sex scenes. This pretty much pushed Fifty Shades into the so-bad-it’s-good territory for me, a realm of pop-culture that I usually hold exclusively for the most garbage movies ever made. But Fifty Shades holds all of the same hallmarks as The Room and Birdemic: an overbearingly self-assured, yet deluded, creator; a ridiculous amount of financial investment; a distinct lack of anything approaching quality; and a complete detachment from the real world. The only thing that really separates it is that there’s a huge market for Fifty Shades. It’s as if Tommy Wiseau managed to be a huge success, simply by directing his film to the huge demographic of Eastern European mentally-unstable narcissists with speech impediments and calcified bones that fill the world.

So I decided to get a bit into Fifty Shades Of Grey, just to see if it was as awful as I expected it to be, and to see if I could somehow relate to a section of society I’ve had very little do do with. The results are mixed. Mixed in the sense that I switched between wanting to stab out my eyes and burn down the whole world at various times.

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Grey by name, Grey by OH MY GOD DOES ANYONE IN THIS BOOK HAVE ANY SELF-RESPECT

First of all, you have to take in the full majesty of E.L James before you can even think of understanding the subtle nuances of her mind.

E L James is a TV executive, wife, and mother of two, based in West London. Since early childhood, she dreamt of writing stories that readers would fall in love with, but put those dreams on hold to focus on her family and her career. She finally plucked up the courage to put pen to paper with her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey.

E L James is currently working on the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey and a new romantic thriller with a supernatural twist.

That’s right, terrible fiction lovers! Are you feeling a big gap in your usual “Vapid main character dry humps vampire/werewolf/Frankenstein/mummy/cat-man” novels! Well don’t worry, because that woman who wrote that scene where a man had the proper sense to pull the tampon out before sticking his “tampon” in (actual scene from book).

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[Tampon joke removed due to illegality]

From there, we move onto the first chapter, which readily sets the scene by making sure that you understand yes, it’s in first-person, and yes, the main character will shit you to tears with her interior monologue:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet.  Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.

Oh, right, she has low self-esteem. That’s not a totally, blindingly obvious reference point to character development, right there in the first paragraph. You probably know what the basic story of Fifty Shades is about – some rich dude whipping some girl or something – and you can probably guess that it’s some kind of sexual “awakening” journey. Kinda like the subtext of Thelma & Louise but with more dick. Right there, from the first words, James is trying so hard to force the book’s motive on you that you that it comes across as totally tacky. ‘WHAT, YOU THINK SHE’S GONNA BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME?” James seems to scream from the page, the distinct smell of lube and leather polish emanating from her mouth. “NO NO NO, YOU JUST WAIT ‘TIL SHE GETS CHAINED TO A WOODEN POST! THEN YOU’LL SEE SOME FUCKING EMPOWERMENT!”

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Fun fact: it’s all a Joan Of Arc metaphor

By the way, if you think that paragraph is in any way good writing, I hate you.

The following is a long, frilly rendition of someone who is dangerously close to the little voice in their head, explaining every aspect of the scenery in eye-rolling detail.

Behind the leather chairs is a spacious glass-walled meeting room with an equally spacious dark wood table and at least twenty matching chairs around it. Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline that looks out through the city toward the Sound. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.

A lot of the first section is just this, interspersed with more self-loathing, before the big reveal of Christian Grey, who immediately becomes the almost-too-creepy badarse who pretty much made the book famous. Cue a confusing three-way conversation between Mr Grey, Ms Steele and Ms Steele’s nagging Jewish mother conscience:

“Do you feel that you have immense power?” Control Freak.

“I employ over forty thousand people, Miss Steele. That gives me a certain sense of responsibility – power, if you will. If I were to decide I was no longer interested in the telecommunications business and sell up, twenty thousand people would struggle to make their mortgage payments after a month or so.”

My mouth drops open. I am staggered by his lack of humility.

“Don’t you have a board to answer to?” I ask, disgusted.

“I own my company. I don’t have to answer to a board.” He raises an eyebrow at me.

I flush. Of course, I would know this if I had done some research. But holy crap, he’s so arrogant.

So yeah, that, but then this:

“I have varied interests, Miss Steele.” A ghost of a smile touches his lips. “Very varied.” And for some reason, I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze. His eyes are alight with some wicked thought.

“But if you work so hard, what do you do to chill out?”

“Chill out?” He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.

“Well, to ‘chill out’ as you put it – I sail, I fly, I indulge in various physical pursuits.”

He shifts in his chair. “I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”

It scares me just how much I didn’t want anything to do with this story within the first few pages. As much as I label Fifty Shades as a poorly-written wankfest masquerading as a game-changing romance, I did want to objectively understand what all the fuss is about. I still don’t really, apart from the fact that Christian Grey seems to be some hypnosis-inducing demigod with enough game to make The Game look like the Bible. In fact, I found my mind swerving halfway through the first chapter from “What the hell is this?” to, “Man, this is great stuff, I gotta remember this”. That, no doubt, made me feel slightly more nauseous. But my point is that the main supporting character is constructed as an infallible example of independent ability and determination, despite coming off as arrogant and cold to people around him. Remind you of anything? Grey, admittedly in only the first chapter, seems such a shameless rip-off of Howard Roarke from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that you half-expect some anti-government diatribe to appear halfway through the novel. There’s no way I’m getting that far, because I have to keep stopping to wipe all the rage spittle off my computer screen.

"Hello, I'm Ayn Rand, and I hope you all die in a fire."

“Hello, I’m Ayn Rand, and I hope you all die in a fire.”

Anyway, enough douchebag literal criticism; this is all stuff you already know. You probably also know that there’s a huge-budget movie adaptation getting rushed out in time for Valentine’s. Really, there’s no more perfect day to release a film which is essentially a thinly-veiled attempt to cash in on people’s sexual fantasies. No longer able to focus on the words in the book without passing out, I decided to watch the trailer and try to piece it together that way. Here it is, in full, creepy glory:

So, going on first impressions alone, my initial understanding of the storyline of Fifty Shades based on the trailer – forgetting the book and all the whip-based conversation going on about it for a a moment – was, “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPE”.  I’ve gotta admit, filling an entire feature trailer with creepy, creepy looks takes some balls, but I still feel nothing for this movie other than it’s apparent christening of the “genitalia-specific romance fantasy” genre. No, not porn: this is porn with a PLANE. And BEYONCE. It’s different.

I honestly can’t feel anything for Fifty Shades in context other than this is a poorly-realized attempt to create a fairy tale with sadomasochism, and that the main characters are completely unbelievable. “You amateur,” I can hear you saying. “You just know nothing about romance.” Maybe I don’t. But that’s society’s fault for not teaching me early enough that the easiest way to get into a girl’s pants is to convince her you’re a sexual deviant before man-handling her in an elevator.

Anastasia herself appears to be nothing more than a soulless vehicle for the story, which is often the result of pretending a female character has some weight on the story. This is a long-standing trope in books, films and more, and it’s something I’ve gotten angrier and angrier about over the years, because so many people have produced vapid female characters under the ruse of strong personas. “It’s totally feminist, because the lead character is a woman!” is an argument that rears its ugly head a fair bit when something as controversial as Fifty Shades is released. No, it’s not, because when your lead female character operates solely as the repository for other character’s problems/issues/ennui/violence/antagonism/semen (take your pick), you’re not really doing the job there. Think about every horror movie ever. The lead might be female, but their one job is to run around in a blood-soaked t-shirt, screaming “HEEEEEEELP” at no-one in particular. I’m sure Anastasia has some kind of character arc, but Grey was the one who seemed to change the most in that trailer. I might be over-analyzing this, but I’m doing so in the unrealistically positive mindset that the movie will be something better than just two characters staring at each other for an hour and a half with the strong sense of “OOH YEAH, LET’S MASH OUR BITS TOGETHER WHILE WE HIT OURSELVES” radiating from their faces.

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“I have gallons of lube in my penthouse apartment. Gallons.”

Either way, since I don’t really have anything better to do on Valentine’s Day, expect to see me watching Fifty Shades at a cinema near you. I’ll be the one in the front row, crying and screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” while furiously masturbating.

Reality TV Products Prove We’ve Reached The End Of Civilization

If you’ve stared incredulously at a TV screen some time in the last 10 years, you’ll know how all-pervasive reality television has become. No longer some kind of tenuous experiment into human psychology, reality TV has now become the core of television production. A vast number of us decide to relax and be entertained by watching the heiress of a hotel fortune vomit into her handbag after one too many Ambiens.

One of my favourite comedians, Patton Oswalt, did a bit a few years ago on just how deep we’re delving into the arsehole that is reality TV, to the point where we use up all the reality to the point we end up in a reality-less white void. And it’s funny because it’s true.

During a drunken foray into Amazon to probably find either a book on embarassing reproductive diseases or dumb criminals (both are regular searches), I stumbled on one specific nugget of gold: UnPHILtered: The Way I See It, the biography by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the ever-loved Duck Dynasty series.

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The special edition comes with greasy redneck beard hair stapled to the front cover.

If you’re not too sure what exactly Duck Dynasty is, let me put it simply: four men with what appear to be dead animals glued to their respective faces get drunk, shoot rifles, scream at each other and try to avoid assaulting their wives while the cameras are on them. There’s some subplot about the family getting rich from duck calling devices, but that’s really secondary to all the low-grade, violent drama going on.

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Definitely the type of men you’d trust with your investments.

Now, Amazon is absolutely full of books that don’t generally matter to society, ranging from Coolio’s Cookbook to erotic fiction about being milked by a cow. Yes, if you’re a pervert who also harbors really obscure interests like fondling lion’s testicles or, y’know, just jungle fever, Amazon has it for you. And you know what? If you feel that you need 55 gallons of lube, I’m not gonna judge you. What shits me about UnPhiltered is that a), it’s enormously popular, b) the publishers felt the need to put out a book about a guy who invented a duck caller for some reason, and c) It’s not even fucking written by him. See that “with Mark Schlabach” at the bottom? Sound like a ghostwriter much? God knows it’s hard to write a book about yourself. when you’re beard blocks most of your peripheral vision and your buzzed on pure ethanol all the time.

Anyway, that book piqued my interest in other reality TV spin-off products and, my god, does that rabbit hole go deep. If you don’t know who Farrah Abraham is, it’s probably time to get aquainted, because even if your a Nazi sympathizing dog killer, she’ll probably make you feel better about yourself. The standout star of MTV’s Teen Mom – obviously the pinnacle of conscious thought and ethics in television – Abraham has become a walking, talking, fucking-in-front-of-a-camera-ing caricature of celebrity excess.

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“I hope my daughter will be proud of me when she grows up.”

Farrah Abraham is definitely the author of and definitely not just the commercial vehicle to sell My Teenage Dream Ended, the story that led to her humiliating herself on national television. As well as being a terrible title for a book, My Teenage Dream Ended kind of skews the fact that the book’s more or less about Abraham getting knocked up and her boyfriend sadly passing away, and how unfortunately common that kind of thing is.

“I got off the phone and I tried to calm down, but my mind was racing.  Derek was the father of the baby I was carrying inside me.  He was my first love, my only true love. We hadn’t spoken in more than two months, but crazily I had still hoped we had a future together—me, him, and our baby, as one happy family.  It’s every teenage girl’s dream, isn’t it?  You meet a boy, you fall in love, and then one day you have a family and grow old together, happily ever after.”

“But no, Farrah Abraham!” God shouts from the sky. “You are destined for so much more! Your llife must be ruined to a certain extent to ensure that you lose your mind, sell your soul to a corporate machine and forever be known as that girl who used her illegitimate kid to try and get famous. Oh, and you also have to film a sex tape with a famous porn star, and then deny that it was intended for public release before accusing the distributor of sexual harassment.”

Abraham made a sex tape with man-of-the-skinflick James Deen a little while ago. Now, I’m not a complete expert on the porn industry, but I think it’s pretty clear that when you let yourself be filmed having sex with a porn star, you have to expect it’s gonna go public. Her constant denials of that notion have made her seem slightly more crazy, but not as much as the time she accused the company involved, Vivid, of drugging her and allowing her to be raped. Now, as serious and obviously tragic such allegations may be, many sources have called bullshit on the story, including her own family and friends. So I have no real trouble in lumping it in with the cocktail of batshit insanity that is this poor girl’s life. I’m not going to link any of the porn stuff here, because honestly the idea of it makes me sick, but it’s not too hard to find if you get boners from sadness.

"I don't know what everyone's talking about, I feel fine."

“I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, I feel fine.”

But if you really want to explore the nuances of Abraham’s exciting life, you have to dive in to the accompanying My teenage Dream Ended album. If you’ve never heard the trials and tribulations of teenage pregnancy through the voice of a malfunctioning, cough syrup-addicted robot, then this is probably the CD for you. In all seriousness, hearing someone express all their ennui through autotuned and completely surreal stream-of-consciousness rambling on top of awful, awful dubstep is something I’d been hoping to avoid for the majority of my life, but here this is. Want to know about the phone call that changed her life? How about how she felt after prom? No, either do I, but at least acknowledge that this exists for some reason.

"So I've decided to get my passions and hopes down on the page so that I can help other young moms find their... BUY MY FUCKING BOOKS, I NEED MONEY FOR VALIUM."

“So I’ve decided to get my passions and hopes down on the page so that I can help other young moms find their… BUY MY FUCKING BOOKS, I NEED MONEY FOR VALIUM.”

What Has The Sydney Siege Taught Us About Racism In Australia? Not A Whole Lot, But It Should Teach Us To Be Less Reactive And Automatically Trusting Of The Media

The last few days have made me proud of how carefully curated my Facebook wall is. As much as that is a sad indictment of our social media-obsessed world, it’s gratifying to not have to see any anti-Islamic sentiments plastered up and down my daily Internet stares. But if the countless comments, I’llridewithyou hashtags and angry outcries against racism are anything to go by, there was plenty of that around. I’m glad I didn’t see any of it, because none of it is that surprising. You can hardly expect such a country-stopping moment to happen and not have uninformed shit flying around. The Internet – or the Australian microcosm of the Internet, at least – has become something of a mess of chucked-together news articles, dubiously sourced information and hastily-planned opinions.

But that’s the Internet for you, and that’s the modern-day news cycle for you. It just so happens that the cafe in which the event took place was directly across the street from Sydney’s Channel Seven offices. Now, allow me to elaborate on something about journalists that you probably already suspect, but try to ignore; this is a dream story. A hostage situation involving an alleged Muslim extremist in an inner-city cafe right next to your news studio? On any day, as a journalist, you can’t wish for better luck. This, in essence, is the driving force of contemporary journalism, and also the exact thing you should be critical about as a consumer of news.

There’s no doubt that what happened in that cafe is a tragedy, and something we as Australians are constantly hoping we do not have to deal with, as ignorant of international affairs as that may make us seem. As a country, the vast majority of us strive to make our home as inclusive and welcoming to all people, and that’s something I’ve always been proud of. I don’t necessarily buy into the entire idea of an underlying taint of racism in this country, at least no more than any other. But when something like the events in Sydney occur, something as surreal and terrifying as a drawn-out hostage crisis, it takes a very small amount of force to change the entire dynamic of how we handle the information thrown at us on a daily basis.

You’ve probably seen that. Everyone’s favourite objective and journalistically-ethical newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, ran a special 2pm edition featuring two hostages holding a black flag with white Arabic writing over it. “It’s an ISIS flag!” was the original scoop the Telly threw out with that “DEATH CULT” remark. Turns out, though, it’s not. It’s a Shahada flag, and has no connection with ISIS. So here’s the first thing that everyone should’ve realised from that moment: when something of this magnitude happens, and all of the news networks jump at the chance to be the first ones to report, someone is bound to fuck up. Then again, look at that picture and try to put yourself in the mind of the editors responsible; it’s immediately powerful and is sure to sell papers. It could be the case – although I’m definitely not saying it is – that that picture was just too tempting to not run with one of the more powerful jingoistic phrases in the Australian lexicon at the moment. That should’ve been realisation number two: there are always people who will try to make a buck out of tragedy.

App-driven taxi replacement service Uber has been killing it in Sydney, but it’s surge pricing policy – increasing rates during busier times to keep supply high – has not. What’s the best way to get people on board? Why, using a hostage crisis to remind everyone of course! Now, whether or not that was the intention here – I’m kinda 50/50 about the charity the company was obviously trying to portray – it’s hard to make a statement like that about your controversial service without it sounding like a thinly-veiled attempt to make money out of tragedy. They did attempt damage control by explaining that they just wanted to help out the people of Sydney, but by then it was probably too little, too late.

It was also only a matter of time until the whole deal pushed the worst of Australia out into Martin Place, as well. Racist piece of shit Ralph Cerminara, the leader of the “Australian Defence League” (obviously a vicarious adoption of the English Defence League, a gang of skinheads) took to the square to rant nonsensically about Islam and “left wing bigots”. A new Cronulla is coming, he says. Oh, good. That’s just what we need.

It’s relatively easy to label Cerminara as the waste of air he is, but it’s important to acknowledge that Cerminara and his ilk have access to all forms of media including the Internet, the same place you’re reading this here relatively more informed – if I do say so myself – blog. He has the same access to information that you do. It’s the way in which we handle that information that usually frames us as a normal, productive human being or an arsehole. I’m sure Cerminara might’ve been a good person before finding out about Stormfront. Just the same, I’m pretty sure the below people are normal and friendly, but shove a mass media event in front of them, and this happens:

There’s an enchanting, brainwashing effect that often washes over us when something like the Sydney Siege happens. It’s a combination of media-driven hysteria, sober reflection on our own personal situations and the uncannily human trait of being absorbed by tragedy and violence. Media is built on this latter notion. Uncle Rupert and the Daily Telegraph would not dare publish something of the shit-stirring quality as they have if they didn’t think a huge amount of people would become transfixed by it. You most definitely haven’t gotten through one hour in the last few days without hearing something about the siege, and it’ll probably be a while before you won’t. It’s because of the simple fact that tragic and/or uncommon news sells, and what sells is what’s pushed. I’m not trying to detract from what news and journalism is when I say this. It’s just simply a fact, a fact that sometimes muddies our understanding of current affairs and the world in general.

I’m not going to go into detail on Man Horan Monis, because there’s plenty of that around. Suffice to say, in my mind, these are the actions of one unhinged nutcase that have unfortunately brought another unneeded level of stigma against a group of people who definitely do not deserve it. Whether or not he could’ve been stopped is a moot point, because he wasn’t. It has to be remembered that this is a tragedy, but do not let the saturation of articles you’re being exposed to make your mind up for you. And as easy as it is to get caught up in the ever-increasing hysteria surrounding the last few days, it’s also worth remembering that humanity in general is always capable of violence. It’s how we react to instances of violence that define who we are as people.