Anyone who has attended an event at the Wheeler Centre (if you can find anyone who has) will tell you that this fascinating forum, whose purpose is "to foster broad public engagement in books, writing and ideas", adds nothing but lustre to Melbourne's already Areopagan reputation as a city of culture and debate. The centre was established, its website says, as "a recognition and celebration of Melbourne's passionate readers" (a description that ought to be drawn to the attention of the organiser of an event in its current programme entitled "Away with Cliche: Irritating Language I Want to See Banned"). It was endowed by the founders of Lonely Planet, a uniquely whingey collection of guide books in which much of abroad (and especially Great Britain) is implied to be inferior to what we have in Australia, so that the Australian user of the guide, travelling only to have his prejudices confirmed, feels a glow of satisfyingly smugness when home his footsteps he hath turned from wandering on a foreign strand.

Cultural jewel though the Wheeler Centre is, it cannot be compared in range and interest of events with the Finkelstein Centre in Burchett Hill, endowed by the Bromberg family to honour the eminent Australian jurist "whose name will be forever associated with the defence of freedom of speech and comment at any cost". Like the Wheeler, the Finkelstein Centre (motto: "I disagree with what you say and will oppose to the death your right to say it") deals in literature and ideas, but specialises in what its website describes as the "concretisation of writing and speech so that concepts might be actualised and put into effect to engender a total reality in the conversation".

How this works was explained to Argus by Finkelstein Centre director Mary Lou Cannold, an acquisition to this country from Canada where she ran the Medicine Hat Women's Refuge & Grievance Awareness Workshop. "Take the case of a recent debate on 'post-birth abortion'," she began. Dr Alberto Giubilini and Dr Francesca Minerva, who wrote that fascinating recent polemic After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? on the ethics of what seems to me this perfectly reasonable step forward in the liberation of women, were invited to enlarge on their thesis as part of our cultural interface. But since our audiences, though highly intelligent, and even though they have cast off their early Judeo-Christian cultural formation, might have residual problems in accepting the basic fundamentals of this social advance, I thought that it would be opportune to 'concretise' the issue by having a post-birth abortion performed during the conversation. We had no trouble finding a candidate. A social worker I know, a strict feminist who will not speak to men, had been artificially inseminated by mistake while in hospital for a beard implant. She sued of course but that didn't undo the damage. When the baby turned out to be a boy she didn't know where to turn - until she heard that I was looking for someone who would help actualise and put into effect the concept at the heart of our debate.

"We were all ready to roll, we had a volunteer from the local branch of the Marie Stopes Foundation for Maternal Mercy booked to perform the operation, when at the last minute Alberto and Francesca pulled out. They said that when they wrote it was all right to abort after birth they'd really meant it wasn't all right. It makes you wonder doesn't it? Just because a few fascist 'pro-lifers' raise a hue and cry they get cold feet. I don't want to sound racist but I suppose all those stories that RSL rednecks tell about Italian tanks having only one forward and three reverse gears must have some basis in lived experience."

The Finkelstein Centre is not afraid to address "the hard issues". When distinguished medical pioneer Dr Philip Nitschke, author of the bestseller Killing Me Softly, was invited to speak about his book he naturally wanted some assistance in actualising the concept of dispensing with oneself. Ms Cannold invited a number of residents of the Shades of Night retirement home in Burchett Hill to be in the audience. Some were reluctant to attend; one of them had heard somewhere that Dr Nitschke was unkind to dogs; but most were enticed along when the debate was presented as an evening with a bingo expert who would lead community singing as well. Dr Nitschke explained that the big prize for the bingo would be a free hook-up to his "dream machine", a streamlined apparatus he had stationed on the platform with him - "you just lie back and think lovely thoughts and the machine will do the rest," he added soothingly. The bingo winners, Jessie and Stan Snell, presented themselves to Dr Nitschke and were bidden to compose themselves in the "departure pods" of the machine. "Press the 'go' button, dear friends, or shall I do it for you?" asked the doctor, while a quintet from the Tallis Scholars, regular performers at the Finkelstein Centre, struck up "Silver Threads Among the Gold" for the community singing. All at once, just as the quintet had moved on to "Where Did You Get That Hat?", the auditorium was plunged into darkness. The machine had short-circuited. "You ignorant cretins," Dr Nitschke screamed at Jessie and Stan, "you've fucked my machine!" He was trying to throttle them both at once when Ms Cannold declared the event terminated. An examination afterwards indicated that the contents of Stan's colostomy bag had leaked into the machine, causing the malfunction.

The Finkelstein Centre has attracted some star guests. The writer Ayaan Ali Hirsi was to have taken part in a recent discussion about the Moslem habit of female 'circumcision' in which she was to put the case against this quaint cultural tradition. As it happened, she was unable to be in Australia after all, so the "no" case was presented instead by Ms Eva Mahjong, a founder member of the Women's Electoral Lobby. The case in favour was made by a local author, Imam Ibn al Choppa-hedoff Poofa whose major work is a "death list of infidels" published by the Burchett Hill Mosque. To illustrate his argument, Imam Choppa-hedoff had arranged for a young woman to be "circumcised" on the platform. Unfortunately she disappeared from the centre just before the debate (it was later learned that she had induced a cleaner to let her out of the room where she was locked) and no understudy had been engaged. Imam Choppa-hedoff, understandably put out, called for volunteers from the audience of mainly elderly book-lovers. When no one offered, he and his assistant, the muezzin from the mosque, leapt on Ms Mahjong and dragged her by her cropped hair to the "work table" they had set up as part of their presentation. Her shrieks as he flashed his scalpel carried well beyond the confines of the hall and a passer-by called the police who, seeing the imam in the midst of a largely Anglo-Saxon-looking crowd, assumed that "white racism" was rearing its head and opened fire on the audience with tasers. The debate was suspended. Police are considering charges against Ms Mahjong under "hate crimes" legislation for "offending the feelings" of the imam and muezzin by her disinclination to cooperate.

There is no doubt about the variety of topics for, as Ms Cannold puts it, "stretching the mind" in the Finkelstein Centre's programme.  For Gay & Lesbian Week, for instance, writer Christos Philthopoulos, author of Australian bestsellers Suck and Blow (his latest novel Cum is due out next month) and Lesbian activist Desma Bull, a lecturer in Queer Studies at Manning Clark University, spoke about their work. But instead of "just sitting there and talking shit," as Philthopolous put it, the two letterateurs boldly decided to concretise their concepts by offering free tuition to audience members in such quintessentially G&L pursuits as "cottaging" and "scissoring". One elderly lady commented afterwards that she would never have believed she could have enjoyed herself so much. Philthopoulos refused to apologise to seven male members of the audience who were arrested for indecent behaviour in the Prince Albert memorial public facilities opposite the centre while actualising the concept of cottaging because, he said, "that's all part of a gay's reality".

So of course is marriage equality, which came up the following week. Instead of a literary debate it was decided a gay marriage should be celebrated in front of the audience. The happy couple were a centre researcher, "Gavin", and his friend "Rodney" ("we didn't use our real names because it's not quite legal yet, is it?" said "Gavin"). "Rodney" was particularly impressed with the high standards that prevail at the Finkelstein Centre. "The main auditorium looked just gorgeous," he commented. "There were masses of pink stephanotis and swathes of white satin." It is a pity that the occasion was spoiled by an unseemly spat when a third party, "Donald", a prosperous-looking older gentleman, arrived and claimed to be already "partnered" with "Gavin". "It's like bigamy!" he cried. At this point Ms Cannold intervened. "As the next campaign after marriage equality is achieved," she announced, "bigamy will be the subject of a future debate. Let's not jump the gun."

Other forthcoming highlights in the Autumn Programme at the Finkelstein Centre include:

6 April: "Why censorship is never an acceptable option", with speakers from Liberty Victoria. The evening will include the burning of Bibles, works of climate-change scepticism and other "poison that enslaves the mind", the destruction of which, says Ms Cannold, "is not censorship but the fundamental human right of liberation". Friends of the Finkelstein are being asked to donate a Weber barbecue for the occasion.

13 April: To coincide with the Global Atheism Convention, Professor Richard Sneer from Oxford will launch his book Why Only Morons Believe in God. Professor Sneer will debate the existence of God with Johnny Hallelujah, a young trainee for the Baptist ministry in Papua New Guinea, who speaks only pidgin ("we pride ourselves on balance in our exchanges of ideas," says Ms Cannold).

20 April: "An Evening with John Clarke" in which the gifted satirist and mimic from New Zealand, a favourite on the ABC, will show how to create a whole gallery of hilarious characters using only one silly voice and pulling one stupid face.

Bookings are necessary for all events.

26 March 2012

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