Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Are we really like that?

In his most recent column, Michael Leunig reminisces about a summer trip he took as an 18-year-old to far north Queensland:

What I saw as we wandered northwards along the beaches and small towns was a beautiful remnant Australia - more innocent and organic and far more slow and peaceful than the land we know today.

Crumbling, yet luminous mental images remain to console and sadden me: a broad, shallow cove lapping into rainforest with indigenous families dragging nets at sunset, lizards and exquisite tree frogs clinging to hotel bars lit by dim bulbs, sugar towns being swallowed by flowering vines - the streets strewn with golden mangoes fermenting, enchanted architecture of lattice, tin and wood - delicately laced with peeling paint and richly jewelled with fireflies and butterflies - frangipani vapours and the slow, warm dripping of time in darkly rotting gardens - all engulfed in a deep, humble and intoxicating peace.

When I first read this I thought perhaps that Leunig was reaching beyond a purely political, abstract, theoretical account of the good, and was expressing something more real: a description of a deeper good as he himself had experienced it.

But abstract politics does intrude. Leunig goes on to lament the loss of the tribal rituals of the Walpuri Aborigines as follows:

Eighteen years more found me weeping alone in a remote cave in the Western Desert ... I had been led there by a Walpuri man who wanted to show me this sacred place where he was initiated into Walpuri law and manhood ... This was his country ... home of a profoundly spiritual people ...

In the cave ... for many thousands of years, young men in ritual had moved their dusty hands along the rock ... This gentle smoothing of hard rock had been going on in ceremony since way before the days of the ancient Egyptians or Moses.

My friend was part of the final group in this line of history to be initiated here; to learn all the truths of the land and masculinity ...

But it all came to an end in his time - and in my time also. The hands moving over the rock, the ceremony, the continuity and story - all ended ...

... a massive wave of grief swept over me as I realised the magnitude of what had happened: the utter tragedy and loss to us all.

This too seems to project a less abstract account of the good. There is a value placed on particular goods which are held to be significant to men: the continuity of a communal culture and identity; a masculine identity; a connection to place; a sense of ancestry; a love of country.

Unfortunately, in Leunig's case we have to assume the sentiment to be, at least in part, bogus. If Leunig really held such things to represent the good, then he would hold them to be good for all men, including his fellow "whitefellas".

We know, though, that he doesn't. Leunig typically presents the mainstream tradition not in terms of the sacred good, but as a uniquely evil manifestation of racism and xenophobia. For us he recommends not continuity and tradition, but a more culturally anonymous existence within a modern, diverse multiculture.

So it's still the case with Leunig that theory is driving the account of reality. This is what I complained to be too often true of liberal thought when I recently discussed why some liberals held traditional cultures to be colourless.

I'm not alone in observing this. In the current edition of Arena, Guy Rundle takes aim at his fellow leftists for precisely this fault. [Goodbye To All That, April/May 2007]

Rundle thinks that too many Australian films and novels are narrow political constructs and therefore fail to engage with how things really are. He complains that they "impose a series of authors' moral fantasies upon a world that varies utterly from it".

This is especially true, he believes, in the portrayal of more traditional peoples, such as the Aborigines, who are all too predictably presented as "people of nature, pre-political unity, and timelessness" - as "knowing grounded blacks" compared to "anxious, rootless whites". (Rundle here seems to catch Leunig out.)

Rundle has a theory for why the leftist cultural class came to miss the reality of things. He believes that from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, there was a successful Labor alliance between a sub-class of left-liberal cultural professionals and the working-class.

Although the politics of the left-liberals tended to cut across the values of the more socially conservative working-class, the alliance could hold early on because the cultural professionals weren't so dominant in Australian society.

However, by 1990 the value systems of the two groups had come into conflict. By the mid-90s the alliance was over, as the working-class shifted its support toward Howard.

But the artists never grasped this, and continued to present a "fantasy" that, rather than being politically isolated, they still represented the wider national alliance in exile.

Their artworks attempted to tell the big story but without recognising how things really stood. Rundle comments:

Reflecting back the world as their creators want it to be, such works can be profoundly embarrassing, impossible to defend ... Ultimately there is a degree of narcissism involved in them, the 'is' of Australian society disappearing before the 'ought' reflected back at the writers, for whom the revival of a national progressive project would also form a route back to a greater influence in national debates.

Without a grand historical project, left-liberalism had no place to put its emotional politics. Pre-modern peoples were turned to for meaning, in part because they represent a "perfect other" as their stable "frameworks of correspondence and meaning" are what is lacking in the life practices of media professionals in whose world "everything can be re-arranged and connected to everything else".

When Rundle writes of the left-liberal cultural class turning to Aborigines as "a key resource whose lives could be mined for meaning", it's difficult not to think, once again, of Michael Leunig. The Aborigines appear, in Leunig's writing, as a counterpoise to what we are not - to what we are missing. This not only involves a certain romanticising of the Aborigines, it also leads him to discount the place of what is traditional and meaningful in the lives of white Australians.

It's not a politics which goes anywhere. To prove his point, Leunig must show the mainstream as lacking the values he asserts in the "other". And then what? It becomes a case of running down the mainstream and building up the other. There's no creative purpose in it for the mainstream and for Leunig there is mostly the unhappy role of charmless critic.


  1. A dry, shrivelled heart of stone will never understand the delicate tears of a lost and solitary duck.

    Leunig speaks for all mankind, not for just the blackfella or the whitefella.

    If you cannot see that, perhaps it's because you cling too resolutely to your own tribal identification?

    Perhaps your values system is all fucked up?

    Perhaps Leunig's delicate barbs have stung your twisted soul, and perhaps your anger and pride are driving you to long-winded, semi-coherent defences of the indefensible?

    Just guessing...


  2. "Leunig speaks for all mankind".? I needed a laugh to start the day, thanks for that gandhi.

    I don't think Leunig need be taken too seriously. After the next federal election, he'll be full of the joy of living and be willing to write of how wonderful and enlightened Australians are. Leunig and his ilk (and there's plenty of right-liberals like him too) remind me ever so much as football fans, who cheer on their team and detest their rivals.

    "A hail of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

  3. I first started reading Leunig back in the early 80's. I don't remember him being too jolly cheerful back then, in the Hawke and Keating years. But that's just me. Perhaps I have an overly close attachment to that quaint old-fashioned concept, reality.

    If you cannot put yourself in the shoes of those of us who cringe with shame and feel genuine physical pain whenever Howard utters a new lie, perhaps you need to work on your empathy?

    LESSON ONE: Imagine you are an Iraqi mother, standing in the rubble of your bombed house, with the bloodied and blackened corpse of your dead baby in your arms.

  4. Ghandi: "LESSON ONE: Imagine you are an Iraqi mother, standing in the rubble of your bombed house, with the bloodied and blackened corpse of your dead baby in your arms. "

    I agree with you there Ghandi, Hussein was certainly guilty of these crimes, as is bin Ladin and the late al Zaraqawi.

    The mother probably hopes to high heaven that somebody would bother get off their back-sides and deliver her from the tyranny of socialist thugs and Islamist fanatics.

    Too bad the only country in the world with the will to have defeated Slavery, Caesarism, Nazism and Communism, and is now tackling a problem that the UN and EU refused to seriously address, gets so many "barbs" from those who benefit from its presence in the Western world.

    Fat bloated arm-chair peaceniks are about as useful as a chocolate teapot in these times.

    Thanks for the lesson, "Ghandi".

  5. For me, it's not as much about empathy when it comes to Leunig, but rather a lack of coherency or objectivity in his views.

    Politics aside - Leunig doesn't believe in 'nature'. More to the point, he only believes in the 'nice' things of nature. There's no account in him for nature’s syntax of discipline, violence & death. Like most (if not all) liberals – the undercurrent to their ideology is an infantile ‘coddling’ where nobody dies, and everyone loves everyone else ‘eternally’.

    Though this road is useful within a ‘family’ (or community) construct – the extreme leftist wants it extended to all corners of the globe. All races, nationalities, cultures, sexualities, personalites, etc.


    How are we all to ‘love’ the same thing that everyone else loves? One’s identity must be defined to a set of principles.

    Respect? – sure, but not beliefs.
    People defend their beliefs. Wars & violence are synonymous with this principle. Whether literally, or metaphorically – one’s life & beliefs do come into threat at times and need to be defended.

    The leftists & feminists fail to see this. They have one foot in the ‘birth’ side of nature only, and the other in the ‘material’ benefits of capitalism. When one looks at what these two worlds require to exist - It’s hypocritical.

    Life is not a right. In terms of wars, violience, respect & honor – I’m a naturalist. The hare doesn’t have the ‘right’ to live unless it outruns the fox.


  6. I need absolutely no lessons in empathy, least of all from yet another bleeding heart liberal.

    Bobby's point about Leunig only liking the 'nice' part of human nature is a good point. We cannot defy our own human nature- we can discipline it, but we cannot defy it.

    The political aspects though are interesting. For one thing, the Howard government has gifted back the battler vote to the ALP with his work-choices legislation. So the battlers and the artists are back in the same tent again. However after the past 15 years or more, the value gap has, if anything, widened. Watching Kevin Rudd as PM try to balance the two wings of his party will be interesting.

  7. I'm amazed at how easily the right has written Howard off.

    If the polls were any indicator at the last NSW State Election, the Greens should have won government.

    Polls are, to put it bluntly, crap.

    Howard was king hit in the "debate" on the ABC on the last two or three occasions also, and the Liberal Party has had it's fair share of bad press ever since 1996 (or 1946, for that matter).

    Although the government isn't exactly Traditionalist, I take Pat Buchanan's advice and vote the the better alternative, which is, almost always, the Liberal-Nationals.

  8. Howard is surrounded by right-liberal 'feral abacus' types that I find just about as abhorrent as a left-liberal feminist. They are just as damaging to the fabric of Australian society.

    I used to be a right-liberal myself, and so I suppose I am sensitive to the damage that right-liberalism has caused. But that's a story for another blogpost, I think.

  9. Hello Scott,

    I understand where you're coming from. Traditionalists don't have a substantial enough grouping within the Party to influence policy to the degree I'd like them to, however, given the choice, I have to say I'll be putting my lot in with the Coalition. At least they can run an economy, and that is no small feat, my friend! :-)

    I disagree with you about how they are somehow equivalent to the feminists. I'm sorry to have to say that is "streatching the friendship" a tad - though I do object to thier quantification of human experience: the one thing capitalists and communists have in common.

    But at the end of the day, I'd rather live in a capitalist society than a communist one (in which, I will disclose, I use to live). At least in a capitalist society, there is room for our ideology, in a socialist one, there is little to none (I find leftists to be the most intolerant people out there in the political milieu).

  10. the Howard government has gifted back the battler vote to the ALP with his work-choices legislation. So the battlers and the artists are back in the same tent again. However after the past 15 years or more, the value gap has, if anything, widened.

    Rundle himself, as a leftist, isn't too hopeful. He thinks it likely that if Rudd wins office he will attempt a Blairite New Labour solution. The artists will be bought off with subsidies, and the fallout of modernism will be kept in check with surveillance and micromanagement, or what Rundle calls "therapeutic coercion".

    Rundle concludes that in such a setting the left-liberalism of the artists will remain "a dead and self-indulgent tradition" disconnected from social and political reality.

  11. Well, as far as it goes, Rundle is right. But there's plenty of things that an ALP operative can do to balance the two.

    I myself forsee Rudd's style as being a populist in the same mould as Peter Beattie in Queensland. Hunger for office as well as ideology drives Rudd and his team, and they'll do whatever it takes. And in the end the left-liberals will swallow a lot to help keep them there. That's the way it seems to me.

    Kilroy reproaches me for writing off Howard too soon. He might be right- Howard has seemed dead in the water before. One must pay reluctant credit to his political skills. But Howard has a confused mish-mash of ideology of his own; he is still more a right-liberal then a conservative. I think WorkChoices is the proof of that. There's been those that have described implementing WorkChoices as the height of Howard's career.

    And from what I've seen, it is WorkChoices that will bury the Howard government. It's a profoundly unconservative program too.

  12. Hello Scott,

    Please don't read me wrong (for lack of a better expression) I'm not trying to reproach you at all.

    I'm just trying to "keep the faith" in Howard as I think that Traditionalists like you and I will be heard clearer with a Coalition leadership than under the "Christian" socialism of Rudd or the reformed Communism of Gillard.

    Personally, I don't believe that Howard is either a paleo-con or a neo-con, but merely a pragmatic populist-capitalist. It's an awkward expression, but I don't know how else to describe it; perhaps this is a symptom of the ideological "mishmash" you mention in your last post.

    In any case, I'm still in the Howard camp only because we in Australia don't have a Pat Buchanan equivalent.

  13. I suppose I should reply to Gandhi.

    Gandhi wants us to believe that Leunig speaks universally "for all mankind".

    It's difficult to accept this proposition, though, when Leunig takes extreme positions in describing different groups.

    He relentlessly puts down the Anglo population, describing them recently as "stupid" and "boring". The Aborigines, though, are lionised as a "profoundly spiritual people".

    It seems to me that Rundle's argument makes sense, and that what Leunig is doing is a certain kind of reverse "othering".

    In the liberal worldview, "othering" is a naughty thing that traditional societies supposedly do: such societies are assumed to define themselves (or even construct themselves) positively as an "us" in contrast to a deficient outsider "them".

    Leunig, though, is defining his own society negatively as an "us" in contrast to a positive "them".

    For this framework of understanding to hold firm, the polarity has to be sustained. What they have, we don't have.

    That's why it's such a dead-end politics. For Leunig to be proved right in his worldview, we have to stay benighted - we have to continue to make up the negative polarity.

    Furthermore, the Aborigines are treated emblematically - they stand in for something relative to white society. This detracts from what is really needed, which is a hard-headed, practical, courageous view of what Aborigines need to do to survive as a people.

    Of course, if you want to get emotional then Leunig is your man. There is plenty of wallowing to be done if you accept the kind of framework Leunig offers.

    It's no coincidence, though, that what results seems exaggerated or distorted: "the delicate tears of a lost and solitary duck", "cringe with shame and feel genuine physical pain when Howard utters a new lie", a "dry, shrivelled heart of stone" etc.

    So why take Leunig seriously? Only, I think, because he does have a genuinely poetic sensibility. It's a talent, though, that is much burdened by Leunig's political worldview.

  14. Eloquently put Mark. Your words, while mature, resonate due to their adherence to a common sense in the real world.

    In terms of truth, reality & progress – I don’t think we should get bogged down too much with political syntax like right-liberal, left-liberal, neo-conservatives, etc (or even between Politicians like Howard v Rudd v Gillard v…), which starts to sound more like football team ideologies (ie. X vs Y), than discourse about societal thinking & reality. It’s starts to sound like evasive ‘wining’ of points. Sure they are prominent ‘icons’ – but they aren’t the ‘meat’ or the ‘ideas’.

    “Leunig, though, is defining his own society negatively as an "us" in contrast to a positive "them".

    Leunig’s view is common amoung people that find it difficult to swim against an often strong current in their own world. For them, it’s far easier to gravitate towards a foreign ideology simply because it seems like THAT current flows downstream. It goes far beyond ‘sympathy’ for another. The fact that one forgoes their own identity so quickly is of great concern – particularly when the after-effects are not thought out.

    This overly-sympathised blind “Going over to the other team” ideal, is seen commonly in liberal history & everyday life. (eg. Affirmative action, abortion, Animal rights, Childrens rights, Gay marriages, etc) – where a previous responsibility to common-sense in society is foregone for a modern laziness in an attitude of ‘let everyone do as they please’. The result of these largely unethical lifestyles is that we alleviate almost all the responsibility from ourselves to fix our own problems (or cultures) – and always look to the horizon for the ‘answers’.

    We learn little, and ‘build’ even less.


  15. Bobby, thanks.

    I think drawing to people's attention the distinction between left and right liberalism is useful, for if it's kept hidden then people think they have more choice in modern politics than they actually do.

    However, I do agree that politics is too often degraded by people following their "side" like a football team. There are people who will defend their "man" in politics to the very last, no matter what he does.

    I very much agree that Leunig is effectively taking an easier option. If he really thought the Aborigines were on to something good, then he'd seek that good for his own society. But this would mean re-evaluating the politics of his own class and doing some difficult political work.

    Instead he plays the role of passive, negative critic to this own community - something which wins easy plaudits from his own political class, but which doesn't achieve anything practical or positive.