Monthly Archives: October 2014

Amira Hass’s Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

0805057404Amira Hass is a rarity: a Jewish Israeli journalist who lives full-time among Palestinians. She went to live in Gaza in 1993 and moved to Ramallah on the West Bank in 1997. She writes for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Drinking the Sea at Gaza is rooted in her daily witnessing and sharing of the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It deals with the period from the Oslo Accords (1993–1995) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, followed by the general elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (1996), with flashbacks to 1948, 1967 and the first Intifada (1987–1991), and an occasional footnote on changes between the Hebrew and English publications.

An awful lot has happened in the Gaza Strip since Hass wrote this book, including the second Intifada (2000–2006), the withdrawal of the Israeli army and dismantling of Israeli Settlements (2005), the election of Hamas (2006), the blockade (2007–) and armed conflict involving rockets, air attacks, land invasions, targeted assassinations, demolition of homes, and constantly violated ceasefires. So the books political narratives are historical rather than current news, the statistics on the economy are way out of date, and the living conditions of the people have almost certainly changed, and not for the better.

But the strength of the book lies in its intimacy. However formidable it is as journalism – marshalling statistics, providing context, arguing a position, constructing lucid narratives – it absolutely shines as a multifaceted portrait of people who have endured and resisted dispossession, armed occupation, economic oppression, neglect, wilful misunderstanding and betrayal. Hass has been described as an Israeli-bashing journalist, but on the strength of this book that’s rubbish. What she does is attempt to communicate an understanding of Palestinian points of view: suicide bombings are nightmarish, but the extraordinary hardship caused to ordinary people when the Gaza Strip is ‘hermetically sealed’ in response is monstrous. She writes about her friends.

Gazans include three main groupings, each with its own perspectives: refugees, people who were already living there before the great influx of refugees in 1948, and Palestinians who returned from exile after the Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s. Hass’s sympathies lie firmly with the refugees. There is also, of course, great political diversity: Fatah, preparing to govern and then backing Yasir Arafat (with reservations: Hass is not a fan); Hamas, at the time of this book gaining strength as the main Islamist party; the secular left, small but insightful. Older men who have spent time in Israeli prisons have a greater understanding of and sometimes sympathy for Israelis than the young, some of whom know them only as stereotypical oppressors (a little boy who followed some Israeli soldiers around tells an adult questioner he is trying to see their tails). Women are largely absent for public life: Hass, a Jew, mostly deals with men as a journalist, and her chapter on women is made up largely of pieces written by Gazan women contacts.

An unexpected quality of the book is its humour – Hass herself has a sardonic edge, and she has a good ear for the illuminating jokes of her Gazan friends.

The chapter ‘It is written in the holy Quran’ is a wonderful antidote to the notion that Islam is a dangerous monolithic hive mind. In a discussion of Muslim diversity is a neat example of religion-based humour. Hass was getting into a lift with a male acquaintance when another man, known to them both, joined them as the door was closing, and said, ‘I’m Satan.’ When Hass showed her lack of understanding, they explained that a verse in the Quran says that when a man and a woman are alone together Satan is between them.

Another chapter begins with a teasing exchange between drivers in a traffic snarl. The men, both from the same refugee camp, mock each other on the basis of generations-old jokes between the villages their parents were driven from in 1948. And so we are introduced to a very bitter–very sweet culture of remembrance. The yearning for lost country is not just a political motivator. It also sustains people who have been trapped in refugee camps for half a century.

Even when dealing with the torture of political prisoners in Israeli prisons, there are unexpected flashes of laughter. This, from a man named Abu Majed, is probably my favourite moment in the book:

One of his interrogators was rather overweight. As the man was jumping on him and squeezing his testicles, trying to get him to squeal on his comrades, Abu Majed managed to gasp, ‘They must be paying you double for your fat ass.’ Incredibly, the interrogator bent over with laughter and left the room.

Hass describes that as an unexpected moment of contact. That’s not a bad description of the book itself. In the context of so much that is written about the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian entanglement, here is someone attempting to build a bridge of understanding. She writes:

If more Israelis with good intentions would actually come to Gaza and talk to people directly, I am convinced that they would have a better understanding of [attitudes described in the Israeli press as] ‘fundamentalism’ and a better grasp of the true face of the Oslo Accords. But Israelis are not allowed into Gaza unless they come to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders as part of an official delegation.

We can be very glad that at least one Israeli has managed ‘talk to people directly’, and has given us a chance to do so by proxy through this book.

Leith Morton’s translations of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki

Leith Morton (selector and translator), Poems of Masayo Koike, Shuntarō Tanikawa & Rin Ishigaki (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Asia_Pacific_Series_Japan1Indonesian writer and translator Maggie Tiojakin said recently on the ABC’s Books and Arts Daily that in translating Kipling’s Just So Stories she had to negotiate between wanting people to understand Kipling’s playful language or just enjoy the sound of it. Having opted for understanding, she worried that she had ruined Kipling’s work.

People enjoyed her Elephant’s Child anyhow, so all was well, but a similar dilemma faces any translator where the sound and look of the words matters. This includes most poetry, particularly when translated into European languages from languages like Chinese and Japanese that are written in characters: a simple word-by-word transition just doesn’t do it. The difficulty – and the joy of the challenge – are charmingly illustrated by the web page Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary); likewise by Robert Okaji’s annotated translations from Chinese (thanks for the tip, Will).

Inevitably then, in a book like this one, presenting three Japanese poets in translation, there’s a sense that one is reading the poems at one remove: they really are at one remove. The translator, Leith Morton, discusses some of the challenges in his preface, at one point expressing the hope that ‘the many textual pleasures … available to [a] Japanese audience can be gestured towards in translation’. He succeeds admirably, but it’s still frustrating to read gestures towards other people’s pleasures. But then when I came back to the book a couple of weeks after my first reading, its pleasures had miraculously become much more immediate.

The first of these three poets, Masayo Koike, is the youngest and possibly the most accessible to readers who, like me, have slender acquaintance with Japanese literary forms. There are wonderful haiku-like moments, like this in ‘The Ashtray and the Girl’:

The end of summer
In the middle of the road
Lying on its back a Brown Baker cicada

A number of her poems are remarkable for their ease with bodily functions: ‘A Short Poem about Daybreak’ begins:

America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
Daybreak
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself

In ‘Bathhouse’ the speaker looks at other women’s bodies, ‘Naked backs, hips and backsides / Private parts / … The many hollows of the female body / Water gathering there / Dripping down’ ; ‘Penis from Heaven’ (a title that must put Leith Morton in line for some kind of award!) recalls an intimate, sexual moment from a film with no hint of prurience or transgression.

The second poet, Shuntarō Tanikawa, is, according to Leith Morton’s preface, generally acknowledged to be the most famous poet in Japan today. Urination features in his section of the book as well, most notably in ‘Peeing’, which I read as a cheerful anti-war poem. There are a number of fine poems about poetry and writing. Possibly because I read the book while my mother-in-law was dying, his poem that most struck me was ‘My Father’s Death’. This is in a number of parts, the first of which might almost have been called ‘The Day Father Died’ in homage to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ – it is preoccupied with minutiae, except for the stark description of the dead body:

his mouth with the false teeth removed was open and his face had turned into a Noh mask of an old man, he was already dead. His face was cold but his hands and feet were still warm.

If you get a chance read this whole poem – it moves on to concentrated meditation, to the speech Tanukawa gave at his father’s funeral, to a beautifully captured moment of memory and realisation a month later.

Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) doesn’t have any piddling, but she does have a bathhouse poem, ‘At the Bathhouse’. Perhaps as she was of an earlier generation than Koike, she takes the bodies of the women for granted and takes as her starting point the one yen pieces that women receive as change when they enter the bath – a humble coins that

Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.

The heart of this poem, and possibly of Ishigaki’s section of the book, is in the later lines:

What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.

That is to say, many of the poems are about humility – about poverty, deprivation and economic oppression, but also about humility, and a kind of surprised appreciation of small unvalued things. The point where I fell in thrall to Ishigaki was in the poem ‘Sadness’. Here’s the whole poem (note – I’m 67):

I am 65.
Recently I fell over and broke my right wrist.
They told me at the hospital that
After it heals it will not be the same as it was before.
I rubbed my arm crying.
‘Mother
Father
I’m sorry’
Both of them
Died some time ago and are no longer here
This body I received from them.Even now I am still a child.
Not an old woman.

This is the third book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series. The others (which I blogged about here and here) were translated from Chinese.

Grand Master C L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry

C L Moore, Jirel of Joiry (©1934, 1935, 1936, 1939; Ace Fantasy Books 1982)

jojThis book reminded me of something the late poet Martin Johnston said about H P Lovecraft: ‘The writing is terrible but it gives you great nightmares.’ In this tremendously inventive fantasy the main character, the fierce but beautiful warrior lady Jirel, takes five separate journeys into four different demonic worlds. Think Dante’s Hell without the theology, the politics or the poetic vision, but plenty of gusto, gore and unspeakable horrors.

Jirel of Joiry has been on my list of recommended science fiction/fantasy books for a long time, probably because its protagonist was among the first women to star in heroic fantasy genre fiction. I began reading it now for reactive reasons: I was irritated by a recent egregious bit of click-bait that dumped on adults who find some YA and children’s literature and by extension fantasy seriously interesting (no argued rebuttal needed beyond invoking Sturgeon’s Law); and a ham-fisted, over-analysed fantasy episode in a mainstream novel made me yearn for some unabashed genre writing.

Weird_Tales_October_1934The book’s five related short stories were first published in the 1930s. The first, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’, inspired the cover illustration of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared (see left). You don’t get much more unabashed than that.

The Weird Tales cover actually owes more to its assumed readers’ tastes than to the story itself: in the scene it purports to illustrate, Jirel is clad in armour and holding an unsheathed sword, and the black god, encountered in a black building on a dark, dark night, is described as follows (on page 29):

The image was of some substance of nameless black, unlike the material which composed the building, for even in the dark she could see it clearly. It was a semi-human figure, crouching forward with outthrust head, sexless and strange. Its one central eye was closed as if in rapture, and its mouth was pursed for a kiss. And though it was but an image and without even the semblance of life, she felt unmistakably the presence of something alive in the temple, something so alien and innominate that instinctively she drew away.

This goes easier on the emotive adjectives and adverbs than most of the writing, but it’s fairly representative  I particularly like the way, having used nameless a little too often in recent pages, the writer reaches for an alternative and finds innominate, for this is a book in which there are many things that the narrator tells us are beyond the power of words to name or describe. Do I need to tell you that within an overwrought page Jirel is compelled by mysterious global forces to kiss those pursed lips, with chilling consequences?

The stories are all fast moving, violent and dazzlingly inventive, easy to mock when paraphrased, but told with a gleeful lack of irony. The sexual politics are fascinating: Jirel is a formidable warrior who is violently ambivalent about the idea of being dominated by a male, whether human or demonic, and who has deeply antagonistic relationships with the only other significant female characters. But even more fascinating is the play of black and white. Jirel herself is identified as red, because of her hair; the attractive/deadly male figures are all at the darker end of the swarthy-to-black spectrum; and an emphatic white is reserved for lost, spectral figures such as the blind, galloping horses in the cover illustration of my edition of the book, or the fabulously evil characters such as the witch in the fourth story, ‘The Dark Land’:

It was a woman – or could it be? White as leprosy against the blackness of the trees, with a whiteness that no shadows touched, so that she seemed like some creature out of another world reflecting in dazzling pallor upon the background of the dark, she paced slowly forward. She was thin – deathly thin, and wrapped in a white robe like a winding sheet …

But it was her face that caught Jirel’s eyes and sent a chill of terror down her back. It was the face of Death itself, a skull across which the white, white flesh was tightly drawn. And yet it was not without a certain stark beauty of its own, the beauty of bone so finely formed that even in its death’s-head nakedness it was lovely.

And it goes on – the word ‘white’ occurs four more times in the next paragraph, which also mentions the absence of colour and shadows, twice each.

It was impossible not to think of Toni Morrison’s 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison describes a mythologised blackness ‘pulled from fields of desire and need’, and ‘the silence of an impenetrable inarticulate whiteness’ that occurs again and again in fiction by white US authors. I don’t know if she has a taste for genre or may even have read Jirel of Joiry, but I hope she would enjoy the way it allows images and motifs from white US’s Africanist imagination to thrum with innominate energy.

Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being with the Book Group

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Penguin 2013)

9781922079183Before the meeting: I doubt if I would have persisted with this book if not for the Book Group. I can pinpoint the moment on page 97 when I would have given up:

The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist? It feels like it exists, but where is it? And if it did exist but doesn’t now, then where did it go?

At what possible level could this be interesting? Yes, it’s from the diary of Nao, a 14 year old girl, but this, a couple of pages later, is from Ruth, a mature woman:

What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? Pixels need power. Paper is unstable in fire and flood. Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing.

It’s not just the banality of such writing, it’s the ominous sense that the author is out to Communicate Something. And there’s a lot of it in this novel.

However, I did persevere, and I’m glad I did.

There are two interlinked stories. In the first, Nao, a Japanese teenager who spent most of her childhood in California but returned to Japan when her father lost his job when the dot com bubble burst. She is bullied at school with increasing viciousness, drops out and makes some unfortunate life choices, but finds strength and comfort with her great grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun of great antiquity. Her father has sunk into a deep depression and tried to kill himself a number of times. Nao likewise intends to kill herself once she finishes her project of writing her great grandmother’s life story. Bit by bit, she learns the story of her great uncle, a poet and dreamer who was conscripted to be a kamikaze poet in the First World War.

In the second story, Ruth (a novelist who shares a first name and many biographical details with the author) lives with her partner Oliver (same name as the author’s partner) on an island on the west coast of Canada (where the author lives). She finds a parcel containing, it turns out, Nao’s diary – the one that is intended to become the great grandmother’s life story – and a diary and some letters written by Nao’s great uncle.

So there you have a set-up for lots of cool intertextuality, or do I mean metatextuality? We watch Ruth reading and responding while we are reading and responding ourselves. What is ‘now’ for Nao (yes, they are pronounced the same), is past for Ruth. Ruth finds out things from the letters that the Nao of the diary doesn’t know, and desperately wants to intervene, convinced that this information would pull Nao and perhaps her father out of their downward trajectories.

Oliver and his friends occasionally lecture Ruth about scientific matters connected to climate change. Nao’s great grandmother lectures on zen themes, including a neat set of instructions on how do do zazen (zen mediation). Ruth ruminates a lot on time (in a garrulous way that feels very un-zen to me, but what would I know, Ruth Ozecki is a zen priest and it’s a long time since I read Allan Watts). There’s a crow that is in some way spiritually significant. At one stage an event disrupts the space-time continuum – which would have been fine in a fantasy novel, or as a Paul-Austerish bit of postmodern play in this novel, but the characters keep on trying to make sense of it in a way that seems to be claiming great spiritual significance for it, but ends up underlining its arbitrariness.

What the novel does brilliantly is cast a net over the idea of a Japanese identity that can include such great contradictions: militarism, suicide cults, zen wisdom, cosplay, origami, brutality and a deep honouring of persons. The sections about the young men conscripted to be kamikaze pilots is gruelling and convincing. The descriptions of schoolgirl bullying, which I would have been inclined to dismiss as whipped up for effect, gain plausibility from their juxtaposition with the earlier generation’s bulling.

There are other pleasures, such as the irresistible image of Oliver hiding in a refrigerator delivery crate in the cellar to avoid visitors who let themselves in and wait in the kitchen for someone to come home (it’s that kind of island). But on the whole this a literary novel that makes me wonder why I would ever bother to read another literary novel. No doubt I’ll come back to ‘mainstream’ fiction in good time, but the next book I read will have to be either honest non-fiction or honest fantasy.

The meeting: There were seven of us. We ate pizza. There was lots to talk about. We told travellers’ tales – from Florence, Manila, Shanghai, the Yorke Peninsula and Gerroa. One chap had had a gruesome experience with warts on his index finger. Another had finally emerged from a winter of child-borne infections. Three of us had had deaths in the family since our last meeting. One of us had received an award or two in his professional life.

Three of us had finished the book. No one else disliked it as much as I did. One guy described how he kept seeing it as a different kind of novel as he progressed, and accepted the discontinuities cheerfully. He had laughed out loud when the fantasy element appeared, appreciating its – my word – impertinence. I got some glimmering of how the book could be enjoyed by so many people. Sadly, I think I managed to convey fairly eloquently how it might be disliked by at least one. Some of us found the title to be an uncomfortable mouthful, and we  all agreed that the cover design is terrible.

Bankstown Poetry Slam presents The Last Conversation

Ahmad Al Rady (editor), The Last Conversation (BYDS 2013)

1lcThe Bankstown Poetry Slam, which happens on the last Tuesday of every month, is one of the most exciting events on Sydney’s cultural calendar.

Last month nearly 400 people gathered in the Bankstown Arts Centre to hear more than 20 poets with varying degrees of virtuosity perform their own work – to hear, applaud and at least pretend to judge them as they at least pretended to compete with each other. There was also cake, strawberries and watermelon, all for a gold coin donation at the door.

My own experience of spoken word and poetry slams is extremely limited, but Wikipedia and YouTube inform me that many features of the BPS are standard to slam culture. There are procedural elements such as a loosely enforced time limit (two minutes this time because there were so many poets), judges chosen at random from the audience, a ‘sacrificial poet’ to kick things off without being part of the competition. And the range of subject matter is described well in Wikipedia’s entry on spoken word:

The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.

Likewise the preponderance of non-white performers and the notion that spoken word and slam performance styles are generally influenced by hip hop. (I have listened to Muriel Rukeyser on a podcast since the slam, and it seemed to me that her powerful words would benefit immensely from a slam-style rather than in the measured manner available to her.)

Yes, poet after poet declaimed passionately, like prophets calling us to reject consumerism, psalmists crying out from the midst of suffering or yearning, orators decrying oppression in many forms. One man’s poem was short enough to allow him time for a brief introduction; he said he was honoured to follow those who came before and to precede those who came after, because ‘we are giving you our hearts’. He was right: there was plenty of witty wordplay, social observation, and even some elegant story telling, but again and again a shy young person would approach the microphone and be transformed into an eloquent, spellbinding exposed heart.

[Added later: Click here for a YouTube of Yasmine Lewis, who won the slam]

The air was thick with generosity. When anyone dried up and had to search for their next line – in memory or on a scrap of paper – the crowd applauded. When a judge gave anyone less than 9 out of a possible 10, she was booed. There was no party line: one person urged us to turn to God, another described religion as a stain on humanity, a woman in a hijab was followed by a man advocating for marriage equality, and all were equally met with finger-clicks (the convention for expressing approval of a good line) and cheers. The emcees, co-founders of the event Ahmad Al Rady and Sara Mansour, were unfailingly appreciative and kept the mood buoyant.

The slam happens under the auspices of Bankstown Youth Development Service, whose Director, Tim Carroll, was dragooned into speaking. Since this slam started nearly two years ago, he reminded us, there has been some terrible stuff in the media about Islam and Muslims. What a different picture was created by this event, he said, in which the Muslim presence was so pronounced. And what a shame some of those columnists weren’t there to see it.

The Last Conversation was published last December as a way of capturing something of the slam’s first exhilarating year. I blogged about its launch. As I’ve just read it cover to cover for the first time, I find myself thinking of it as a record of poetry – a book that hasn’t really been read until it’s been read aloud, with full attention to rhyme and assonance, and a hip-hop-like exaggeration of rhythmic effects. And maybe that’s true of any book of poetry.

Noel Pearson’s Rightful Place (and Andrew Charlton’s correspondence)

Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth (Quarterly Essay 55)

qe55 ‘In this essay,’ Noel Pearson writes, ‘I seek to make a case for constitutional reform recognising indigenous [sic] Australians.’

In case some of my readers need it (as I did), let me start with a couple of paragraphs of background.

Beginning of background. A referendum will happen in the next couple of years on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. In June last year, the responsible parliamentary committee published a Progress Report, which is well worth reading. There have been animated public meetings around the country. There’s a T-shirt, a well resourced people’s movement and a decorated Qantas plane. There have been bizarre arguments against change from the likes of Andrew Bolt and – less bizarrely and with much less media prominence – from some Indigenous people. Celeste Liddle’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Indigenous Recognition’ is a good place to go for some of the latter.

In brief, it looks as if we will be voting on whether to repeal two references to race, and on some form of explicit recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The race references are in sections 25 and 51 (xxvi):

25. … if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.

And

51.The Parliament shall … have power to make laws … with respect to: – … (xxvi.) The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws

It’s hard to imagine a reasonable argument against repealing those clauses, given how direly anachronistic they are. The real debate comes with the committee’s other recommendations, which include adding sections recognising the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, empowering Parliament to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’, prohibiting discrimination ‘on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin’, and recognising that the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage’.

End of background

The reason I needed the background, even if you didn’t, is that Noel Pearson isn’t concerned here with those details, but his essay needs at least some of it to be understood. His concern, as I understand it, is to lay out general principles that will appeal to a broad audience of thoughtful Australians, including crucially those who identify as conservative. He brings his lawyerly training and extraordinarily wide reading to the task.

The goal of appealing to conservatives has some unfortunate by-products. Readers of delicate constitution might skip a rhapsodic paean to Rupert Murdoch and Chris Mitchell’s Australian on pages 53–54 without missing much, and likewise page 57 where he sprays someone he calls ‘the left’ with intemperate sarcasm (elsewhere the sarcasm is more muted, but ‘the left’ remains mostly unspecified and beneath argument). It would be a shame if these moments were taken to represent the essay as a whole.

I won’t try to summarise his arguments, except to say that he makes a case for calling what has happened in Australia genocide; he points out that contrary to Captain Cook’s orders, this continent was not taken possession of ‘with the Consent of the Natives’ – there was no consent – which leaves the question of sovereignty politically if not legally unresolved; he explores the implications of parliamentary democracy for a group that is an ‘extreme minority’; he lays out a nuanced concept of multiple, layered identities; he makes some broad brush stroke structural proposals for how Indigenous voices can be heard in political decisions made about Indigenous people; he lays out ‘an agenda for the classical culture of ancient Australia’. The essay is passionate, questing and challenging, and transcends any political stoushes that may surround it.

Pearson begins with an invocation of Yolngu Petition submitted to Kevin Rudd in 2008, and goes on to quote Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s Monthly article from the end of that year, which he describes as ‘an existential prayer’. He then lists a number of Aboriginal people who have, like Yunupingu, agitated for inclusion in the Australian Commonwealth over many decades. It’s a profoundly respectful acknowledgement of those who have gone before him.

Curiously, from that point on the essay barely refers to other Indigenous Australian contributions to the current discussion. Exceptions are a one line quote from Michael Mansell – ‘the British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews’ – and the description of a cultural preservation project being taken on by Rachel Perkins. He mentions his colleagues on the Expert Panel on Constitutional cognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples, but doesn’t name them.

Instead, the essay engages primarily with European and settler viewpoints, at times drawing on their insights at others differing sharply. Pearson quotes H G Wells (whose War of the Worlds was inspired by the invasion of Tasmania), Trollope, Darwin and Dickens consigning Australian Aboriginal peoples to inevitable extinction. He quotes WEH Stanner’s famous passage about Australia’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’. He differs from Inga Clendinnen, Henry Reynolds, Bain Attwood on whether there has been genocide in Australia, basing his argument on English historian Tom Lawson’s The Last Man. German philosopher Johann Herder (1744–1803), Indian economist Amartya Sen, British contrarian conservative Roger Scruton (recently a guest of the  Institute of Public Affairs), and anthropologist Peter Ucko get guernseys. Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt are accorded something approaching respect, and a ‘felicitous phrase’ is quoted from George W Bush.

I don’t know how convincing the hard-line conservative echelons will find Pearson’s arguments. Very, I hope. I also hope that his slanting the argument towards that readership won’t deter readers not committed to the culture wars, or at least not to the ‘conservative’ side, from reading and engaging with this essay.
—–
And then there’s the correspondence on the previous Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton’s The Dragon’s Tail, which was given extra bite by recent consumer activity in my house. Just before the September issue arrived, the Art Student and I had finally been persuaded to ditch our seven year old 27 inch LCD television set and buy a bigger, smarter, more environment-friendly LED TV. As it happened, we gave the old set and its four year old set top box away on Freecycle, so they will still be consuming energy, just not in our house. As I was throwing out the receipts for the old gear, I saw that its combined cost was nearly three times that of the new. Which brought to mind Andrew Charlton:

ten years ago, a shipload of iron ore exported to China was worth about the same as 2200 flat-screen televisions imported from China. Today the same shipment of ore is worth 22 000 flat-screen televisions!

A striking enough illustration of his point in June had become personal by September. None of the 30 odd pages of correspondence this quarter is personal in quite that way, though it seems that many of these people know each other from working together as advisers to Labor politicians, or as ALP parliamentarians themselves. The main take-home I got from the correspondence is that John Edwards’s Beyond the Boom, published at about the same time as Charlton’s essay, challenges of the received wisdom about the boom that preceded the global financial crisis of 2008, arguing that while – as is generally acknowledged – the Howard government frittered away the benefits on tax cuts, people in general were smarter than the government so that domestic savings increased with healthy results for the economy. There’s quite a bit of argie-bargie among economists, who find fault with each other’s charts and sampling methods so that in the end one is confirmed in one’s suspicion that economics is largely about obfuscation.

Among the correspondence there’s a curious moment in a piece from former banker Satyajit Das. The ‘reply’, which barely mentions Charlton’s essay and is in effect its own lecture on the state of the Australian economy, cites the comparison of iron ore and TV sets, but attributes it differently:

On 29 November 2010 … the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens [said]: ‘[In 2005], a shipload of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat-screen television sets. [In 2010] it is worth around 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’ In a Freudian slip, the governor had identified the fundamental issue with Australia’s economic model. Australia may have substantially wasted the proceeds of its mineral boom, with the proceeds channelled into consumption.

Is Das tacitly accusing Charlton of plagiarism, or quietly reproaching him for not naming his sources? Has Charlton repeated Stevens’s ‘Freudian slip’? (The invocation of Freud makes no sense to me, and after a quick look at the Glenn Stevens speech, it makes it even less sense.) Perhaps Charlton’s failure to mention Das in his ‘Response to Correspondence’ was a bit of tit for tat.