To study the Sydney funnel web spider, one researcher tags along from a distance with the help of tags the size of a grain of rice.
After four or five minutes of breathing carbon dioxide gas, Caitlin Creak’s eight-legged subject is fully unconscious. Working quickly—she has less than a minute before the spider, named Harold, starts to wake up—Creak pins the creature’s legs under a foam doughnut, leaving the shiny black body exposed. Using an especially strong super glue, she attaches a tracking device, barely larger than a grain of rice, to his back. The next day, she’ll release Harold near where she found him on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, and study his movements as he continues on his all-important journey to find mates.
Harold and the other participants in Creak’s research are Sydney funnel web spiders, the most venomous spider in Australia, a country that certainly does not lack for venomous eight-legged beasties. In children, a funnel web bite can be fatal in as little as 15 minutes. Typically measuring less than three inches long, including legs—record-holder “Big Boy” topped the charts at nearly four inches—the funnel web spider certainly isn’t Australia’s largest, but it’s one many people from cooler regions of the world would likely describe as intimidating, and impressively chunky instead of delicate and spindly.
“These spiders certainly have impressive-looking fangs and very strong bites. They rear up in impressive threat displays and actually drip venom from their fangs, which is very unusual—most spiders try to conserve their venom,” says Samantha Nixon, a spider venom researcher at the University of Queensland. Nixon says funnel web spider venoms are some of “the most chemically complex venoms on the planet, containing over 3,000 peptides.” Researchers are even studying some of the venom peptides from another species of Australian funnel web spider as potential treatments for stroke, epilepsy, and certain types of pain.
But while their venom is well-studied, Creak says relatively little is known about the spiders themselves. “They’re a very understudied species,” says Creak, a PhD student at the University of New South Wales who originally considered becoming a vet before getting hooked on spiders during an invertebrate biology course in university. “We know how many ways they can kill a person, or a rat, which is great, but we don’t know anything about their life history. It’s such an iconic species; I think it’s really important to uncover more.”
My wife brought me one home from a business trip to Oz, safely encased in Lucite.
Australian nurses and midwives are being forced to announce their ‘white privilege’ before treating Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander patients – a move which has been slammed as ‘racist to its core’.
The term ‘white privilege’ defines the unearned social and cultural advantages awarded to people with white skin which are not enjoyed by people of colour or non-white backgrounds.
The Nursing and Midwifery Board believes the cultural safety of Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander patients is just as important as their clinical safety.
In Tablet, Claire Lehmann discusses the sudden rise to powerful influence of cultural taboos forbidding criticism of recognized victim groups and the ability of members of such groups to wall off cultural items and artifacts from access by outsiders.
Perhaps the most famous American case occurred in the fall of 2015, when Co-Master of Yale Silliman College Erika Christakis responded with an email of her own to an admonitory pre-Halloween email from the Intercultural Affairs Council â€” a group of administrators from the cultural centers, Chaplainâ€™s Office and other campus organizations â€” sent to the undergraduate student body warning against wearing Halloween costumes which could be interpreted as belittling or offensive: no sombreros, no blackface, no turbans, arguing in favor of freedom of undergraduate expression. The campus exploded with protests. University officials, including Christakis’s Co-Master husband, were confronted by screaming, hysterical mobs and, despite Yale’s famous Woodward Report affirming Freedom of Speech and some two-faced expressions of support from Yale President Salovey, both Christakis left on “temporary” sabbaticals never ever to return. A modest and polite demurral to an implicit ban on cultural appropriation sufficed to get two prominent Yale administrators and professors run clean out of town.
In 2013, GQ listed The Human Stain as one of the best books of the 21st century. Arguably, such a book could not be written today, and would almost certainly cause a firestorm if published. Thatâ€™s a pretty sharp turnaround in sensibility in a very short period of time.
The context surrounding the drama at the Brisbane Writers Festival is important for understanding why it happened. Abdel-Magied migrated to Australia at the age of two and, from a relatively young age, entered the public sphere as a â€œmodel minority.â€ She was an articulate activist and an accomplished student (becoming an engineer and memoir writer) who appeared capable of promoting a modern, sophisticated image of an urban Muslim-Australian. For her activism, she was showered with awards and publicly funded appointments, and given international trips for the express purpose of promoting Australia abroad. Yet for all her accomplishments, accolades, money, and travel opportunitiesâ€”or perhaps in exchange for themâ€”the young woman was stuck with the felt identity of a victim. This apparent feeling of victimhood was so strong that she interpreted arguments for creative license in art to be â€œlay[ing] the foundation for genocide.â€
Many peopleâ€”both then and nowâ€”find it hard to understand how such complaints can come from a place of good faith. Activists like Abdel-Magied seem unwilling to empathize with those who may genuinely want to show appreciation for cultures which are not their own, or writers who genuinely want to empathize with those who are different or marginalized, or simply to reach beyond a single layer or caste of the multicultural societies in which they live, an ambition for which writers and thinkers have historically been applauded.
What also seems odd is that activists like Abdel-Magied rarely appear to attempt to persuade others to engage with the foreign cultures they are purportedly defending in more sensitive or better-informed ways. Rather, their complaints have a hectoring, absolutist quality, focusing on the disrespect and lack of deference that white people have shown them. Listening to these complaints, it is difficult to come away with the view that they are about anything other than exercises in power. While being an effective social-media activist, Abdel-Magied is not a particularly good writer, which means identity-as-victim is therefore valuable currency at a writers festival. If literature is not reducible to identity, and representation is not a group property, then her own claim to literary significance would be a dubious one.
It is by considering the power dynamics at play that the logic of cultural appropriation starts to become clear. In a culture that increasingly rewards victimhood with status, in the form of op-ed space, speaking events, awards, book deals, general deference, and critical approbation, identity has become a very valuable form of currency. It makes sense that people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to get some. Expressing offense over a white person wearing a sombrero hat might seem ridiculous on its faceâ€”but for those who live inside these sententiously moralistic bubbles, it may be both a felt injury and a rational strategic choice.
Complaints about cultural appropriation are not really complaints, they are demands. When Abdel-Magied walked out on Shriver, it was not because of her insensitivity, it was because of her defiance: her refusal to kowtow to the orthodoxies written up by her moral betters, from which Abdel-Magiedâ€™s own claims to significance and social status are derived.
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.â€™s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of oneâ€™s skin, or at least oneâ€™s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an â€œoppressorâ€ group is stained by their privilege, or â€œwhiteness,â€ and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also â€œillustrate victimhood culture quite well.â€ One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about â€œone social group harming another.â€
Esquire has a real life story out of Oz that could have been written by O. Henry.
The greatest adventures happen when you least expect them. And on July 15, 2010, Luke â€œMilkyâ€ Moore never thought one of the greatest in recent memory was about to start for him. …
Though he grew up comfortablyâ€”his father, Brett, was a bank executive, and his mother, Annette, a child-care supervisorâ€”heâ€™d been employed since thirteen, bagging groceries, mowing lawns, selling insurance. He was a bright student, but he opted to forgo college for work. â€œI always thought Iâ€™d be a millionaire one day,â€ he says in his thick Australian accent. While his mates were out drunkenly hunting wild boar, Milky was investing in hedge funds, and at nineteen he bought his own home, for himself and his high school sweetheart, Megan.
But then, in the fall of 2008, the life heâ€™d worked so hard to achieve took a series of tragic turns. It started with the stock-market crash, which depleted his $50,000 life savings. With Goulburnâ€™s economy in turmoil, he lost his job as a forklift driver. A few months later, he was driving in the early-morning darkness to paint happy birthday on a boulder near town to surprise Megan when he fell asleep at the wheel of his white Mitsubishi pickupâ€”and drifted right into the path of an 18-wheeler, which plowed over his truck.
He awoke hanging out his shattered window covered in purple and black paintâ€”but, miraculously, alive. â€œIt was incredible that he survived,â€ recalls his father. Milky had a broken collarbone, arm, and ribs, and a ruptured spleenâ€”but the scars ran deeper. He fell into a crippling depression, barely able to drag himself from bed or hold on to the job his father had helped him get as a teller at his bank. Adding to the pressure, his mother was suffering from a debilitating degenerative back disease, sometimes unable to get out of bed herselfâ€”leaving Milky to care for his year-old brother, Noah. It wasnâ€™t long before his relationship with Megan ended under the strain, and Milky assumed the blame. By mid-2010, he was broke, alone, unemployed, and on the brink of foreclosure.
And thatâ€™s just when life suddenly gave him the equivalent of a royal flush on the pokies. It happened on July 15, the day his biweekly mortgage payment was due. With no money in the bank, Milky was bracing himself for the beginning of the end. But then something strange happened. The automatic debitâ€”500 Australian dollarsâ€”went from his savings account at his bank, St. George, into his mortgage account. Two weeks later, it happened again. When he checked his balance, he could see that he had racked up the corresponding debt, and interest, under his name. Once he hit the limit, he assumed, the overdrafts would surely stop.
But they didnâ€™t. Fortnight after fortnight, his mortgage got paid. Thinking this crazy, he put in a request for $5,000 to be transferred to his mortgage account. A couple days later, he called his bank to check on the transferâ€”figuring, at worst, he had reached his limit. â€œDid that go through?â€ he asked the teller, who told him casually, â€œYes, thatâ€™s all paid.â€ A few days after that, on a lark, he called St. George and asked the bank to transfer $50,000 to his mortgage account. â€œI was literally thinking that Iâ€™ll just wing it and see if it works,â€ he recalls. And sure enough, it did. The $50,000 deficit was charged on his savings account, but the bank didnâ€™t seem to notice, or, if it did, it didnâ€™t care. It was like getting a free, unlimited loan. â€œI probably had a bit of a smile on my face then,â€ he says. â€œNot smiling because I was thinking I was scamming the bank, but smiling because I was like, â€˜This is my fresh start.â€™â€
By the time he sold his home a year later, heâ€™d paid down his mortgage so much from the overdrafts that he cleared $150,000 (US$115,000).
Though heâ€™d been quiet about this so far, he finally confided in a friend. â€œWhat do you reckon I do?â€ Milky asked him. What do you do, in other words, when youâ€™re single, twenty-four, and just got a pile of free money from the bank? No-brainer, his friend replied. â€œLetâ€™s party!â€
Milky was going to Paradise. …
Milkyâ€™s rock-star lifestyle became routine. Sleep late, hit the gym, buy memorabilia online, slap the pokies, cocktails at the strip joint, then dancing all night in the clubs. On the nights he didnâ€™t pick up, he sought the ready alternative: the many legal brothels in town. â€œEspecially with girls,â€ he says bashfully, â€œyouâ€™ve got to make the most of every opportunity, because you might turn around and thatâ€™ll be gone.â€ One week, he threw down $40,000 and rented out an entire brothel to himself for four days. And so it was that, one day in November 2012, he barely registered what happened when he went to pay for repairs on his Alfa Romeo. He was standing there in the car shop, hungover and bronzed, when he saw a message heâ€™d never seen before come up on the credit-card machine. â€œCall bank security,â€ it read.
Milky blinked a few times, trying to digest the moment heâ€™d feared for the past two years. Fuck, he thought. Well, thatâ€™s done. He went back to his apartment in a daze. How could this just end? There was no old life. There was only this one, and the hole he had dug for himself. So he did the only thing he could think to do. He grabbed as many stacks of cash as he could find around his penthouse, drove to the airport, and booked the next flight to Phuket.
A flintlock shot gun was found inside a tree harvested on Cape York, the northernmost point in Australia, in the course of it being milled into boards. The gun is supposed to have been left in the fork of the tree and the tree grown around it over many years.