Tag Archives: David Marr

Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101

Benjamin Law, Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal (Quarterly Essay 67, 2017)

qe67.jpgIn conversation with David Marr about this Quarterly Essay at the Seymour Centre in Sydney recently, Benjamin Law produced a wad of A4 paper at least 4 centimetres thick printed on both sides. It was a print-out of articles published in the Australian covering, or at least mentioning, the Safe Schools program over a single year, roughly one every two days. The stories, he says in this essay, ‘were at best inadequate or misleading, at worst simply false’.

The essay summarises the Australian‘s campaign and its effects. It attempts to correct the record about the nature of Safe Schools, which was not a vile, child-corrupting Gay Marxist propaganda program, but a well-thought out, minimalist initiative to help schools counter bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer children, launched by the Abbott government in 2014, having been committed to by the Gillard government in its last weeks. The essay lays out much-needed information about where the medical profession and the law in Australian stand in relation to young people who identify as transgender, about queer theory, about the significance of same-sex marriage in combatting the systemic oppression of LGBTIQ people. Perhaps most tellingly, it reports on conversations with some of the young people whose wellbeing Safe Schools sought to protect (and still seeks, though not in all states and without federal funding) – something not done by any of the Australian‘s 200 or more articles.

Moral Panic 101 could be a sequel to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay 43, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (2011), which provided an epigraph for one of its sections:

In these campaigns, [the Australian‘s] assigned journalists appear to begin with their editorially determined conclusion and then seek out evidence to support it.

Here, extracted from Law’s essay, is a dishonour roll of journalists who, either as right-wing culture warriors or as uncritical relayers of the RWCWs’ ‘facts’, contributed to the News Corp’s campaign:

  • Miranda Devine, ‘the Daily Telegraph‘s resident prophet of doom’
  • Rita Panahi, ‘Herald Sun columnist and Twitter firebrand’
  • Natasha Bita, ‘a Walkley Award–winning journalist who has worked across News Corp’s mastheads since the 1990s’
  • the Herald Sun‘s Susie O’Brien
  • The Australian‘s Rebecca Urban, who wrote thirty-one stories and 17 thousand words about Roz Ward and Safe Schools in one year, ‘all of which were critical’
  • Andrew Burrell, who co-wrote at least one of Rebecca Urban’s articles.

No one was surprised when News Corp went after Benjamin Law the week this essay was published. Given that he’s such a sweet presence they had to search, but they found an ugly tweet, misinterpreted it to make it infinitely uglier, and banged on about it for days, to the extent that Lyle Shelton could give him as an example of the ugliness of the Yes campaign (few reasonable people would see the goodlooking, charming, witty and intelligent Mr Law as in any way ugly). The most astonishing moment in the Marr–Law conversation at the Seymour Centre was that both men revealed that they still subscribe to the Australian.

It’s easy to become fascinated by the illogic, hypocrisy and dishonesty of some commentators, journalists and public figures (I don’t follow @realdonaldtrump on Twitter but I regularly go looking to see what he’s tweeted). What Law has done in this essay, in carefully documenting, analysing and refuting the misrepresentations, goes well beyond that fascination, and has earned our gratitude.

We can also be grateful for his discussion of transgender issues, based mainly on interviews with young transgender people and with Dr Elizabeth Riley, who has worked with gender-variant young people for about a decade. Contrary to what some parts of the press might imply, for example, medical experts in Australia will not prescribe irreversible hormone treatment before puberty. And no Australian minor can commence irreversible hormone treatment without a determination from the Family Court that ‘the child had sufficient intellectual sophistication to understand what was involved, and all the possible consequences’.

Few things can trigger emotional responses more than the accusation of harm to children, especially harm that involves sex. It’s an extraordinary achievement of this essay that, while it leaves you in no doubt where it stands, it remains judicious, calm, reasonable and open to complexity. It doesn’t feel like the last word on the subject, but it’s a good one.
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A final note. Like  most current or retired editors or proofreaders, I tend to be distracted by my own pedantry. If I hadn’t been a fan of Benjamin Law and editor Chris Feik before, I would have been when I read this sentence, talking about queer theory, which says ‘discomfort’ where far too many people would have ‘discomfit’, thereby depriving us of the other useful, but now dying meaning of ‘discomfit’:

After all, one of its central tenets is that it’s supposed to discomfort people by upending how we perceive norms, and by interrogating the social scaffolding around gender and sexuality we take for granted.

SWF 2017 Thursday

It was T-shirt weather for my first day of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. The crowds and queues were big enough to create a buzz without  inducing panic. Having collected my tickets for the next five days I started out with a free event in the early afternoon:

1.30 And the Award Goes to…

This is a regular event showcasing winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Not all of them, of course: this year’s it was Heather Rose, who won the Christina Stead prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, and James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe, who won the Ethel Turner Prize for their A Thousand Hills. Suzanne Leal, the Senior Judge of the Awards, chaired.

Heather Rose spoke of the advantages of obscurity: The Museum is her seventh novel, all the others having been published to little acclaim. Add that she lives in Tasmania, and she has been able to write as she wants, without having to meet someone else’s marketing or other agenda. She said she wrote this novel as a love letter to women in art, who do marvellous work and then are sidelined by art historians. Marina Abramovich, whose performance piece The Artist Is Present is central to the book, became famous when the novel was well under way, and her new celebrity meant significant changes in the book: if I heard properly, at that stage the character in the novel had to be Marina herself rather than a fictional Marina-like character.

James Roy had a different take on obscurity. He opened with something he would have liked to say at the awards ceremony but realised it would have been graceless: even though he has been well supported and has won substantial prizes, he knew on Sunday night that if he won the award on Monday night, he would still have to turn up for his job in retail on Tuesday morning. (Suzanne Leal interjected that she had recently interviewed some women who had collaborated on a writing project because they wanted to earn a lot of money – cue disbelieving laughter.)

Noël Zihabamwe’s own story is similar to that of the book’s hero – both lost their families in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. So for him the writing was an intense experience. He told us that one effect of having the book published was to feel that he was acknowledged: ‘I’m not nothing. I’m something.’ He read from the book, and the conversation addressed the big question, how to write about such a monstrous event and keep some sense of hope.

All four people on the stage were warm, open, smart. James Roy did a nice favour to those of us who couldn’t be at the awards ceremony. He quoted a number of times from Joanna Murray-Smith’s address. An image that resonated with him and, he thought, with every writer, is that every work begins as a tiny burning wick, which if you persevere expands until it lights up all the corners of the room. I think it’s fair to say that the Sydney Dance 2 was lit up by these four luminaries.

I sat next to a young man who arrived clutching a copy of Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (which won Book of the Year). I asked if he’d seen the play at Belvoir Street. No, but he had seen the archive video – evidently you can contact the Belvoir and arrange a time to see the archive version of any of their productions. How good is that bit of incidental learning?

3 pm: Poetry and Performance
Poetry has moved up the status chain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This event didn’t happen in the tiny sun-drenched mezzanine room at the end of the wharf that we have been accustomed to, but in the main theatre across the road with more than ten times the capacity. And it wasn’t free.

But maybe of course it’s not poetry as such that’s moved up. Maybe today’s crowd was drawn by clickbait titles like Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind,  or fusses about menstrual images on Instagram, or the prestige of poet laureateship, or other forms of cool, rather than the art of purifying the language. Whatever, this was a terrific event. In order of appearance:

  • Miles Merrill, who has done more than anyone to foster spoke word in Australia, emceed, opening proceedings with some of his trademark mouth noises, which he told us was a work called ‘Some poems can’t be written down’
  • Carol Ann Duffy, proving that a UK poet laureate can be fun, read from a lectern at the side of the stage  from her collection The World’s Wife. The witty, acerbic narratives of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ were perfect for the occasion. ‘Mrs Tiresias’, a monologue by the wife of Tiresias, a man who was turned into a woman for seven years, lightly challenges some modern pieties about gender fluidity.
  • Hera Lindsay Bird (who wrote the aforementioned clickbait) walked to centre stage and read a number of poems, including one that revolved around her dislike for the character Monica in the TV sitcom Friends. So pop culture reference, frequent use of the work ‘fuck’, and a preoccupation with relationships: not my cup of tea.
  • Canadian Ivan Coyote started out by saying, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m a story teller,’ and read us a number of ‘Doritos’, which would certainly pass for poems. Most of them dealt with other people’s struggle with Coyote’s challenge to seeing people in terms of  gender binaries. I loved the moment when a small child, told by his mother to stop bothering (her) Coyote, looked long and steady ito COyote’s eyes and said,  ‘I don’t think he’s a lady. I think he’s a man, but with pretty eyes.’
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann took things to a different place: she began with an acknowledgement of country, reminded us that this is the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, and said that more Aboriginal children have been removed from their parents in recent years than ever before in Australian history. Having grabbed our attention, she then held it with poems from a number of her books, including the marvellous Inside My Mother.
  • Rupi Kaur (who has been the subject of a big fuss on Instagram) read some poems and then performed a couple of spoken word pieces. I think I would have preferred to hear her (and Hera Lindsay Bird) at a spoken word event, where audience response is so much part of things. No clicking of foot-stamping or voting here, so lines like  ‘I want to apologise to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave’ end up sounding a little glibly correct-line.

Even if people came for the sexy controversy, they got poetry, and a fabulous variety of it.

Then I got to sit in the sun and read, occasionally chatting to passing strangers (including one man who had been to school with Tom Keneally), and back to the big theatre a bit later for:

6.30 pm The Politics of Fear
David Marr and John Safran chatted with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black about Pauline Hanson’s followers and Australia’s extreme right. Sophie introduced them by saying they would join the dots between those two groups, but not a lot of dot-joining happened, or really was needed.

David Marr spoke to his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, and John Safran to his Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Both were interesting and insightful, and at times surprising. It was an excellent conversation, an I left it wondering if there isn’t something futile about too much close reading of the far right, with the end message that even though these people are a small minority they wield a lot of power because of the way our electoral system works. As David Marr said towards the end, the vast majority of Australians – including most Hanson followers – think same-sex marriage and euthanasia should be legalised and penalty rates should stay in place, but governments simply won’t or can’t follow the clear will of the people. It took one of the questioners at the end to ask what is to be done, and the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying.

So we went home glad we’d been but a little disgruhntled through the final run-throughs of a number of Vivid installations (opening the next night).

David Marr’s White Queen

David Marr, The White Queen: One Nation and the politics of race (Quarterly Essay 64, 2017)

Pretty much ever since Pauline Hanson appeared on the political scene, there have been protests that the mainstream media pays too much attention to her. These tweets from March are recent examples:

tweet.jpg

I sympathise with the sentiments, but the ‘no-platform’ cry is surely wrong-headed. True,  it’s painful to see precious media minutes taken up with, for example, crackpot comments on the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s the electoral system that has given Pauline Hanson a platform, and for the media to ignore her now would be derelict. Just recently, though, it’s hard not to feel we’re getting too much of a not-so-good thing: the ABC’s 4 Corners aired ‘Please Explain‘on 3 April; Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong‘ is in the current issue of The Monthly; the summer issue of Overland gave us ‘No Pasarán!’ by Vashti Kenway (who as a teenager in 1996 threw eggs ‘with wild joy’ at Hansonites); and now here’s David Marr’s Quarterly Essay.

9781925435498.jpgThe essay obliquely acknowledges this dilemma. Marr writes, ‘Most Australians reject everything that Hanson stands for,’ but nevertheless ‘politics has been orbiting around One Nation since the day she returned to Canberra’.

The essay gives a history of Ms Hanson’s political career since her stint on the Ipswich city council in the mid 1990s. It chronicles her turbulent relationship with the mainstream political right, including John Howard’s refusal to condemn her infamous ‘swamped by Asians’ maiden speech and his later opportunistic adoption of her policies (the section outlining Howard and Hanson’s trajectories is titled ‘Made for Each Other’). It reminds us of her brief sojourn in gaol and her release on a technicality (what she meant to do was illegal, but she hadn’t actually managed to do it). It takes us through her series of Svengalian advisers. It traces her progress, if that’s the word, from having ‘a folksy distaste for the blacks of Ipswich’ to being ‘an ideologue of race’ with ‘a conspiratorial mindset’.

Anyone who follows Australian politics will already know most of this, but it’s good to have it laid out plainly and without weaselly ‘balance’. There’s also joy to be had in the section ‘A Note on the Language’, which – as Raymond Williams’s Keywords did on a broader scale 40 years ago – examines the loaded meanings of words that have become prominent in the language of reactionary politics. Marr’s analysis isn’t as penetrating as Williams’s or that of the Keywords Project that continues his work, but it includes a number of gems, such as the entry on Free speech, which begins;

Free speech
Not about everything. Mainly Race. But it’s not free speech for pinging racists for being racists. That’s censorship or, indeed, persecution.

Pinging racism, as it happens, is at the heart of the essay. Where Marr’s previous QEs – on Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, George Pell, Bill Shorten – have been mainly character studies, this one is less interested in personality than in politics. It aims, as Marr says in a note on his sources, to put ‘a floor of fact under speculation about Hanson and her political appeal’. The fifteen-page section ‘Pauline’s People’ leans on the latest Australian Electoral Study numbers, drawing into the discussion ‘several professional pollsters who have conducted focus groups among resurgent One Nation voters’. One Nation voters in 2016:

  • were almost entirely Australian-born (98 percent, with the Nationals coming closest at 91 percent)
  • mostly described themselves as working class (66 percent, with the nationals again coming second at 46 percent, and Labor at 45 percent)
  • compared to the general public, included half the proportion of university-educated people and twice that of people with trade qualifications
  • thought things were ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ worse for them than a year ago (68 percent, with Labor running second at 38 percent)
  • believed politicians ‘usually look after themselves’ (a huge 85%, with the Greens a poor second at 51 percent)
  • considered immigration ‘extremely important’ when deciding how to vote (82 percent), thought immigration should be cut ‘a lot’ (83 percent), believed migrants increase crime (79 percent) and take our jobs (67 percent)
  • the kicker, ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with turnbacks of boats containing desperate people seeking asylum (a whopping 90 percent).

And 88 percent of them want the death penalty to be reintroduced.

‘Hanson’s people,’ writes Marr, ‘are not implacable conservatives.’ From marriage equality to euthanasia, they’re open to the small-l liberal agendas. They are generally in work and middling prosperous, though they’re ‘oddly gloomy abut their prospects’. They are overwhelmingly pissed off with government, against immigration and all for law and order. Of these, the hottest topic is immigration.

And as for racism:

Hanson’s people know she is talking race. They talk about it themselves in focus groups. Her candour on race is fundamental to their respect for her. They fear being branded racists if they complain about burqas and mosques and schools forbidding Christmas. She is not afraid. … ‘We’re not racist,’ they say. ‘We support Asians. We like them. We think they’ve done a lot here.’ But they don’t like Muslims. They don’t talk bombs and terrorist attacks in focus groups, though perhaps the threat of violence is somewhere in their minds. They talk a bit about lost jobs and a lot about people not fitting in. Not even trying to fit in. …

I’ve come to think it’s not much use asking if Australia is a racist country. It’s too broadbrush. The better question is: what role does race play in the politics of the country. This is not the politics of class or the politics of money, but the politics of difference.  … The politics of race reassures white Australians unsure of their place in the heap that they’re on the only heap that matters.

Yet, as he says elsewhere, ‘neither Coalition nor Labor leader will bluntly call Hanson on race … the tactical impulse of the major parties is to flinch from naming her for what she is.’ As one of the most significant politicians of our times might say: Sad!


Added later: I forgot to say that one of the best things in this Quarterly Essay is the correspondence about the previous issue, Stan Grant’s Australian Dream. There are robust contributions from Aboriginal people – Alice Springs activist Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Monthly contributor Amy McQuire, and the venerable Marcia Langton. George Megalogenis has intelligent things to say about Grant’s comparison of some Aboriginal experience with that of migrants. Kim Mahood brings her particular whitefella insights to bear. And Stan Grant uses his right of reply with robustness, civility and nuance.

David Marr’s Faction Man

David Marr, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power (Quarterly Essay 59)

qe59

Some trivia to start with: Timothy Conigreve, whose memoir Holding the Man has been made into a deeply affecting film, attended the same secondary school as Bill Shorten: the Jesuits’ Xavier College in Melbourne. Congreve performed in a school production of Romeo and Juliet in the late 1970s; Shorten staffed the box office for a Romeo and Juliet in the mid 1980s.

David Marr’s Quarterly Essay doesn’t mention Tim Conigreve or Romeo and Juliet, but it paints a portrait of a man who, having functioned brilliantly behind the scenes, now stands centre stage. It also reminds us that Tony Abbott is another Jesuit old boy, and invokes the Jesuit ideal of ‘a man for others’ of Shorten, a phrase that is at the heart of a brilliant piece on Abbott by Katherine Murphy. A Jesuit education can clearly lead to very different outcomes.

Marr asks about Bill Shorten the same question he has asked about Kevin Rudd, George Pell and Tony Abbott in previous essays: who is he? The question has a particular flavour in Shorten’s case because, as Marr says, he is ‘a man from nowhere’: ‘Where Tony Abbott is disliked quite viscerally now that he is known, Shorten is suspect because he isn’t.’ One of Andrew Denton’s cartoons in the fabulous Going Down Swinging Longbox (which I’ll blog about soon, and which I assume it’s OK to quote here), makes a similar point:

adbs

To treat politics as if it is all about personalities is to debase the public discourse. But it really does help to know something about the people who are vying for the top political job, about where they come from and – now that politicians are so intent on telling voters in marginal seats what they want to hear – what we can figure out about their agendas.

Marr’s essay gives the background – one of twins, the son of a university lecturer mother and a sailor turned small businessman father, Shorten educated in Catholic schools, including Xavier, joined the ALP while at school and threw himself into student politics at university. The story gets interesting – and incredibly intricate – when young Bill becomes an organiser for the AWU and enters what Marr calls ‘the dark world of Victorian politics’. Shorten quickly mastered the politics of the ALP right, proved to be a brilliant recruiter who, as he took on leadership, reanimated the ‘shot duck’ union.

The history is interspersed with vignettes that are closer to the present moment: Shorten’s successful management of potentially rancorous differences at the ALP National Conference this year; Shaun Micallef’s skewering of his sub-Keating wit, his ‘zingers’; his time in the witness box in Tony Abbott’s politically motivated Royal Commission; a list of his nicknames, from Lot’s Wife‘s Bill ‘Career Move’ Shorten in 1987 to Tony Abbott’s Barnacle Bill in 2014.

The picture that emerges is a man who has a phenomenal talent for union politics. Bill Shorten has been a master of the deal – all the hard work, sweet talk and hard-man tactics, betrayal and compromise happen behind the scenes. His role in the manoeuvring to replace Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister with Julia Gillard and then to replace Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd was in that same mode, though more visible and not a good look (Marr doesn’t mention it, but the captions of newspaper photographs of him at that time called him, paradoxically, a ‘faceless man’.) Now that he is seeking to become Prime Minister, he is in new territory: this competition has to happen in the open – out of the box office and onto the stage, perhaps. When the essay was written, Tony Abbott was his opponent. With the infinitely more personable Malcolm Turnbull in the other corner, Shorten’s challenge remains much the same. This essay helps us to see who he is and the world that he comes from: he needs to find a way to show himself in a way that the electorate will take to him.

Speaking at Gleebooks last night, David Marr said this was the hardest writing assignment of his life, because ‘the terrain is so unspectacular’. Maybe, but there will be a federal election in the next 15 months, and Bill Shorten’s conservative Labor style and substance will be part of some interesting times.

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Up the back there are 40 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay – that is to say, some discussion of IS, Iraq and Syria that doesn’t bristle with terms like ‘death cult’, ‘baddies and baddies’ or even ‘evil’, but is all about military strategy. I’m a pacifist, but I love the way these people can argue their cases.

Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation

Linda Jaivin, Found in Translation: In praise of a plural world (Quarterly Essay N° 52)

QE52Every now and then the Quarterly Essay series leaves aside the world of party politics and the headlines. The last time it did that was in N°41, David Malouf’s The Happy Life. In this one, Linda Jaivin, professional translator from Chinese to English, entertains, informs and advocates on a number of fronts, all to do with her profession, which is also clearly a major passion.

I’ve been interested to the point of fascination in reading about translation ever since Brother Gerard, my high school Latin teacher, explained that when he said my unseen exercise was a very good attempt he was offering high praise, because all one could ever do was attempt to translate, the thing itself being impossible. And I remember how thrilling it was in first year university when our lecturer spent a good ten minutes exploring the nuances of a single word (it was ‘serratum’) in a passage of Virgil. This essay feeds that fascination beautifully, with a wealth of personal anecdotes and snippets from the public record that range from hilarious to frankly chilling. It also has an urgent, cogent point to make about the importance of learning languages other than English as a significant and necessary counter to domination of politically weaker cultures by the stronger.

Having recently re-read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and been sent back by it to a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and of course inspired to my own dabbling with the Onegin stanza, I loved reading about a chain of creations and translations involving the Seth novel:

Stirred by Seth’s brilliant homage, the Israeli writer Maya Arad read Pushkin in the original Russian and then wrote her own verse novel in Hebrew in 2003, translated into English by Adriana Jacobs as Another Place, Another City. … David Bellos marvels at how ‘the very diluted version of the Onegin stanza in Adriana Jacob’s translation of Maya Arad’s imitation of Vikram Seth’s imitation of Charles Johnson’s verse translation of Pushkin resurrects something of the lightness and joy of Onegin’s youth.’ Babel can never be recovered; it never existed. Yet translation allows the construction of great towers, in which each brick may be laid by someone speaking a different language but sharing a common vision.

And up the back is an excellent selection of correspondence on QE51, David Marr’s The Prince, which dealt with Cardinal George Pell’s response to clerical child abuse. I particularly appreciated the responses from four Catholics: Geraldine Doogue, Michael Cooney, Frank Bongiorno and Paul Collins.

awwbadge_2013This is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

David Marr and The Prince

David Marr, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (Quarterly Essay N° 51)

QE51This is David Marr’s third extended portrait in the Quarterly Essay series. After tackling Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott he’s moved on to Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell, with a focus on his response to accusations and proven cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious brothers. Though it’s written with Marr’s characteristic pungency, wit and compassion, it’s not an easy read: so much human suffering, so much denial and disconnection.

The essay tracks Pell’s career – priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal – in parallel with the unfolding revelations of abuse and the institutional church’s responses. Its narrative backbone comes from Pell’s four-hour interview in May this year with the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Its heart is a double quest: on the one hand to hold to account the most institutionally powerful Catholic in Australia, and on the other to try to understand what is going on behind his unrevealing public persona (unsurprisingly, given Marr’s previous writing about him, Pell did not agree to be interviewed for the essay). No doubt the first quest, carefully documented and full of chilling detail, will stir defensive controversy: there may well be an equivalent of That Wall Punch, such a useful distraction from the gist of Marr’s essay on Tony Abbott. The second quest, as befits an essay, asks interesting questions and proposes answers that raise even more interesting questions – the final paragraphs, reflecting on the meaning of priestly celibacy, offer an equivalent to Marr’s conclusion in QE 38 that anger is the juice in Kevin Rudd’s machine …

Avoiding spoilers, I note that Marr isn’t a Catholic. Unlike, say, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s lucid writing, which explores problems with papal infallibility and the moral theology of sex as contributing of the problem of abuse, this essay isn’t particularly interested in the deep questions of how the church got into this state, or of what can be done at the level of culture (beyond relinquishing any sense of being above the law of the land, and acting with justice and compassion rather than defensiveness and financial shrewdness): prayer and forgiveness are correctly dismissed as worse than useless strategies for child protection; there’s little tolerance for celibacy or the seal of the confessional, and even ‘smells and bells’ (Marr’s phrase) come in for a bit of mockery.

Marr tells the story of a man who, abused as a nine-year-old altar boy, met with Pell in 1997. As reported in the Age and quoted here, the man asked how Pell could persuade him to return to the Catholic faith, to which Pell replied, ‘Do you say the Hail Mary?’ While Marr leaves that hanging as one of many examples of Pell’s amazing interpersonal incompetence, a Catholic writer might have stayed with the moment, teased it out a bit. Why the Hail Mary? The words of the prayer don’t offer much help:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Is Pell insensitive to other people’s suffering, or is he suggesting that this form of words might revive some deep, healing connection to childhood piety? Does his question expose the poverty of his personal spirituality, or suggest a profoundly simple approach to faith? If in a similar situation a Buddhist or Hindu sage offered the questioner a mantra, would it seem less bizarrely disconnected? I’m genuinely puzzled.

One reassuring aspect of the essay is that George Pell’s rigid, defensive, authority-centred version of Catholicism is not widely shared by other Australian bishops, let alone the clergy or laity in general. And now, even more grounds for hope, the pope himself seems to be from a very different Catholic tradition.
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And up the back, as always, there is discussion of the previous Quarterly Essay. Seasoned feminist activists Sara Dowse, Sylvia Lawson and Rachel Nolan add interesting and necessary perspectives to Unfinished Business, Anna Goldsworthy’s essay on sexism in public life.

In a departure from Quarterly Essay‘s usual practice, and fair enough because a right of reply is involved, a member of the Australian‘s commentariat puts in an appearance, about which perhaps the most interesting thing is that the cheapest of her snarky shots (and there are quite a few) is reproduced almost verbatim by a cooler-than-thou self-styled left-wing cultural columnist. Angela Shanahan: ‘On the other hand, Anna Goldsworthy is an excellent pianist.’ Helen Razer: ‘Anna Goldsworthy, by contrast, is a wonderful pianist.’ A kinder editor might have deleted both these sentences, and left both writers with a little more dignity intact.
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Addition: Andrew Hamilton, consulting editor of Jesuit publication Eureka Street, reviews David Marr’s essay here.

David vs Tony

David Marr, Political Animal (Quarterly Essay N° 47)

20120914-221620.jpg When David Marr writes an essay about Tony Abbott there’s no point asking if it will be a hatchet job. The question is how well the hatchet job will be done. Abbott is the preserver of John Howard’s legacy; Marr wrote and edited a number of books laying bare Howard’s duplicitous and anti-democratic politics. Abbott is a high-identifier with old-style Catholicism; Marr has been consistently critical of the Catholic Church. Abbott is, well, not comfortable about Gay liberation issues; Marr is, well, cheerfully out as a Gay man.

Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd drew a fairly long bow – on the strength of Rudd losing his temper with an arguably impertinent journalist, Marr concluded that anger was Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’. There’s no equivalent stretch here. In fact, he paints a picture completely congruent with a clerihew I wrote some time ago:

Anthony John Abbott
has a habit
when playing for high stakes
of saying whatever it takes.

He does raise a question that could be paraphrased in another clerihew:

Tony Abbott
is making a stab at
becoming prime minister
possibly concealing intentions that are sinister.

Most discussion of the book in the mainstream media has been about an incident that Marr relates from more than 30 years ago when Abbott was a student politician. This looks to me like a clever ploy on the part of Abbott and his journalist allies, giving those who haven’t read the essay the impression that it’s mostly he-said-she-said allegations about ancient history. It’s actually much more substantial, responsible and entertaining than that.

Wasted launch at Gleebooks

Tonight we went to hear Bob Ellis launch Ross Honeywill’s Wasted, the true story of Jim McNeil, violent criminal and brilliant playwright. There wasn’t a huge crowd – after all it’s nearly 30 years since Jim McNeil died,and his four plays haven’t had a production on a main stage for a long time. But it was a great launch, and looks like a very interesting book

1wastedJim McNeil (1935–1982), according to the Gleebooks web site, quit school at thirteen. Despite his love of reading and philosophy, as a teenager he lived among thugs and thieves. (When we showed him a draft biographical note for one of his Currency Press books in the 1970s, he crossed out the word ‘criminal’ referring to his early milieu and replaced it with ‘knockabout’.)  In 1967,  shot a policeman during an armed robbery. He was convicted and began a seventeen-year prison sentence. In Parramatta maximum-security prison he joined a debating group known as the Resurgents. Though he’d never seen the inside of a  theatre he wrote one-act plays for the group to perform: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. These plays were given productions at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, were a big success, and were published by The Currency Press (the first book I ever copy-edited). He wrote another, full-length play, How Does Your Garden Grow, and part of a fourth, Jack, while still in prison, and then was released ten years early thanks at least in part to lobbying by members of Sydney’s theatre scene. As Ellis said tonight, people were imagining him as being like other badly behaved writers like Brendan Behan, but he was something else altogether. Once he was released he never wrote anything decent again, and his life was a slow descent into violence, alcohol-related illness, and eventually death.

I hesitate to say I knew Jim, but I did visit him in Goulburn Gaol with my then boss, Managing Editor of Currency Press Katharine Brisbane, and he came to  our office more than once after his release. I remember one memorable lunch when he and Peter Kenna, author of A Hard God, told anecdote after anecdote in fierce competition, to our great entertainment. I wasn’t there when, in response to some imagined insult, he broke a bottle on the edge of the kitchen table and threatened to use it on Philip Parsons, Katharine’s husband – but I heard the story from the horse’s mouth the next day. Katharine said she laughed and said, ‘Oh Jim, put it down,’ and he did.

Katharine was there tonight. So were a number of others who knew Jim, including David Marr, who gave him a roof on his release from prison. Ellis also shared a flat with him for some time. Bob Ellis read a piece that sounded as if he had written it soon after McNeil’s death, conveying his charm, his brilliant use of language (‘Dustbin of the Yard here. How are ya, Bobby?’), the ever hovering possibility of violence, and his chaotic alcoholism. Then he read from Wasted, and there was no doubt we were talking about the same man. I’d rate it just about the most moving launch I’ve ever been to. It didn’t turn away from Jim’s truly ugly qualities (Honeywill said that the thing that most surprised him in researching the book was how very violent Jim had been – a far cry from the charming ratbag one would wish him to have been). But there were people who loved him, and still hold a tender place for him. A number of people from the audience told anecdotes, both about his charm and his dangerousness. His story was one of redemption through discovering the life of the mind in prison, then returning to the damned space, almost by an act of will. It made me think – and someone may have said this – that the damage inflicted by the prison system runs very deep: he had lost the ability to make the kind of quotidian decisions necessary to a decent life. Ellis did say that imprisonment has been an experiment in dealing with criminal behaviour, and it has failed.

Quarterly Essay 39: China powers on

Hugh White, Quarterly Essay 39: Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing (Black Inc Sept 2010)

As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one. Timing was unusually poignant in this case: QE38, David Marr’s Power Trip, came out just days before its subject Kevin Rudd was ousted from power; the responses to it here were mostly written when the election campaign of Julia (‘the ouster’) Gillard was foundering, and I read them just after hearing that she will be leading a minority government. There are no fireworks in the correspondence: a couple of journalists add corroborating anecdotes about Rudd’s leadership style (David Marr describes these as symptomatic of ‘a new, and welcome, spirit of indiscretion’; I read them as a bit of a pile-on). Kerryn Goldsworthy deftly despatches whole swathes of attack on the essay and dispenses a little relevant information about literary forms while she’s at it. James Boyce corrects and enriches David Marr’s understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his probable significance for Rudd. In responding, David Marr replies almost entirely to criticisms that were made elsewhere: perhaps it would have been polite to give those critics the right of pre-reply here (he quotes Sylvia Lawson and Allison Broinowski and gives them a one-word reply: rubbish).

From David Marr’s Power Trip to Hugh White’s Power Shift. Appropriate as the title would have been for an essay on the recent election, we have to wait for QE40 for George Megalogenis to give us that (Power Brakes?). This one is about something other than personalities and politics as horse race:

Our leaders, and by extension the rest of us, are assuming that Asia will be transformed economically over the next few decades, but remain unchanged strategically and politically. It is an appealing assumption because the past forty years have been among the best times in Australia’s history, and it has been easy to believe that American power would continue indefinitely to keep Asia peaceful and Australia safe. That has been a cardinal mistake.

Perhaps the assumption is also appealing because its obvious knee-jerk alternative is a revival of Yellow Peril rhetoric. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden’s series of YA novels and now a film based on the first book) demonstrates, incidentally, that the complacency Hugh White sets out to prick hasn’t been absolute, but it does give strength to his arm in seeking to get people to think about Australia’s relationship to China rather than explore violent fantasies, however earnestly packaged.

While Kerryn Goldsworthy says, quite correctly, on page 85 that an essay can be ‘an expedition into the unverifiable: memories; theories; hitherto unexplored veins of subject matter or uninhabited point of view’, this one proceeds with the logical clarity (though not the  soul-destroying aridity) of a PowerPoint demonstration. ‘Since 1788,’ he says, stating the obvious but unsettling truth, ‘Australia has always enjoyed a very close and trusting relationship with the world’s strongest power, and we just take that for granted.’ Well, not for much longer – and we need to think about this. The main history of our times, he proposes, may not be in the place that’s getting the most attention:

The day-to-day management of the [US–China] relationship gets a lot of detailed attention, but presidents and other senior figures avoid substantial analysis of America’s long-term intentions towards China. One reason is 9/11. For almost a decade, America’s political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America’s place in the world than the transformation of the world’s most populous country. Future historians will find that hard to explain.

To be fair to White’s argument, he goes on immediately after this to acknowledge that Barack Obama signalled that the blinkers were coming off after his visit to China in November last year. All the same, Muriel Rukeyser take a bow.

It’s a very interesting essay, which I recommend as an antidote for the personality-preoccupied, narrative-driven writing that accounts for most political commentary in our newspapers these days.

David, Kevin, Rage. So?

David Marr, Power Trip: The political journey of Kevin Rudd (Quarterly Essay 38)

In Quarterly Essay 36, Mungo MacCallum explored the miasma of myth and collective emotion that, he argued, accounted for Kevin Rudd’s popularity. Rudd’s recent plummet in the polls suggests that the popularity may actually have been based on more concrete factors, such as his promising stand on global warming, but the essay was a good read nonetheless. Two issues further on, the series once again addresses (I nearly said ‘attacks’) the Rudd phenomenon. David Marr asks not what we see in Rudd, what we hope of him, what he stands for, not centrally whether his leadership is effective or his policies correct, but ‘Who is he?’ It’s a fair enough question. There is something oddly impersonal in his media persona, a sense not so much that he’s hiding something as that he doesn’t know how to show himself. There have been baffling moments, especially his odd, televised disregard for Kristina Keneally.

The question is fair enough, but I’m not sure the answer gets us anywhere much. A cruel short version would be: ‘Kevin Rudd yelled at me when I told him he was an all round disappointment, so now I know that rage is at his core.’ David Marr writes well, and he marshalls biographical facts into a coherent story, sifting through the hostile and hagiographic scuttlebuck alike, for which much thanks. But in the end, the essay is unsatisfying. His strategy of beginning with Rudd’s use of expletives about the Chinese at Copenhagen and ending with a moment when Rudd sets his diplomat’s blandness aside and tears strips of the writer (in private, quietly, in response to provocation) may be structurally satisfying, but the conclusion that anger is Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’ is a wee bit tenuous. Perhaps I identify with Rudd, as a mostly mild-mannered Catholic man from rural Queensland who uses four-letter words and gets cranky when personally attacked. I imagine David Marr himself swears occasionally and has the odd tantrum – at least I hope he does for the sake of his mental equilibrium.

Tellingly, Kevin Rudd’s response, as reported by the ABC,  was a verbal shrug: ‘Commentators, writers, analysts – they will draw their own conclusions.’

But a distinctive feature of the Quarterly Essay series is that it promotes discussion. No doubt all manner of responses will be aired in Nº 39. Here, the title essay accounts for roughly two thirds of the book, leaving the remaining 40 odd pages to discussion of Waleed Aly’s essay last quarter on conservatism. As a first, a number of voices from the neo-right have appear in these pages, many of them doing their usual polemic attack on straw men. Jean Curthoys (not from the right) suggests that Aly really needs a dose of social democracy. Martin Krygier’s piece makes me decide that if I ever make him cross I’d better lay low. And Aly responds to all comers with precision, grace and – in one or two cases undeserved – respect.