Paris is burning. They riot in the streets. My daughter tells me she has begun work on a documentary critiquing the government's new sedition laws - we both know the danger. Would they dare arrest the film makers? The phones are playing up - too many noises, clunks, echoes, static: are they being bugged, again? This is Australia. This is 2005.
Many of you know that I have moved to a small country village in Victoria and there I am engaged with my community. The community is so active that I had to put down some boundaries or I would have absolutely no time for anything else. Having made it clear I didn't do scones, I have become the words person. It's nothing. Recently I was asked to assist a group in their application for a community award. They sent me a draft which was less than average and I wrote the application with a clear eye on the audience and purpose, bringing it in at 499 words for a 500 limit. None of this is unusual and we all do things like this all the time. It is simply a use of our craft - of what we know. And I wouldn't have thought any more of it had I not recently undergone a very gradual politicisation. I can't pin-point exactly when it was that I came to see the world in terms of 'conservative' and - I search for a word - is it 'radical'? No, that is not the balance to conservatism in this dichotomy, a better term is 'critiquing'. Somewhere recently things started lining up like this for me, and I began dividing the world into conservatism and critique. Philip Adams on Late Night Live on one side and Michael Duffy from Counterpoint on the other. I was definitely standing in the Philip Adams critique section of my dichotomy.
In my new politicised self I could see that the application of what I knew - my writing craft - empowered my community by giving them a way of talking about their organisation, themselves. I began to understand just what is meant by the phrase Writing is powerful. And with this understanding I addressed questions that had been troubling me.
And I asked myself what had stopped me, as co-editor of TEXT for nine years, from going out and soliciting papers critiquing much of what I was appalled by in conservative Australia? Why had I not thought that it was the business of TEXT, the content of our curriculum, the stuff of our research when we in writing were being so radical elsewhere (the development of the research higher degree in creative writing for example)? I had no answer. In a paradigm case of hegemony, I had stopped myself. I felt myself waking from an awkward dream.
Another anecdote. When I was a child my parents in a flush of charity decided to take a couple of orphans from the local Catholic orphanage out for a day's activity. We were all grilled on the requirements - be nice to these kids or else. We understood that the shared day with the orphans was part of our parents' social obligations and if we mucked it up all hell would break loose. The day arrived. We picked up the three kids from the orphanage and had some kind of day out. I don't recall. I only recall talking to one of the girls and asking what it was like to be without a mum and dad. She told me she had a mum, and I felt cheated. I felt totally let down by society who had given my family pretend, second rate, not-the-real-thing orphans. I didn't tell mum or dad, I didn't want to spoil it for them. Years later I understood this story. The kids were Aboriginal, part of the stolen generation. They were very much the real thing, the victims of yet another government policy that went terribly wrong. At the time, and for some time later, we didn't have the concept of a stolen generation, or the language for it, and naively saw these kids as orphans who needed treats and days out.
I can almost excuse this lack of knowledge in the 1950s when I was a girl, but the practice of taking indigenous children from their parent continued into the late 1960s. By then I was at university, a politicised hippy fighting the Vietnam war in the streets of Adelaide. And yet, even politicised, I still did not know what was happening to Aboriginal people. Later as a Feminist and Trotskyite, a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, I still did not know.
It wouldn't have been hard to know but I just didn't ask that set of questions. I didn't look in the right places. I never questioned the orphanage story. Few of us did. We cared passionately but our passions were distracted, channelled into other issues. Richard Neville in a recent article in The Age (Neville 2005) titled 'Grandchildren of the Revolution', used a review of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, British Art & the 60's, to compare the counter-cultural times of that period to now. He reflects in hindsight: 'Overall, I should have listened less to Bob Dylan and done more for Amnesty International.' His point, and mine, is that we passionately wanted to change the world but that our focus was caught by certain cultural and political events and ideas to the exclusion of others.
Of course, no one can take on every cause and remain sane. And the last thing I want to do here is get lost in a nostalgic baby-boomer 1960s dream. What I want to point out is the nature of distraction. I was distracted and did not see the stolen generation although it was actually in my life and formed part of one of my family stories. A powerful thing, this distraction. It is no defence to say I did not know, and yet I didn't. And it wasn't because I didn't want to know - I did. It was because I was distracted by other issues and causes.
I am not mounting a defence, I am looking at distraction. If I was distracted then from knowing this great injustice - from having language to name it, ways to speak of it other than not-a-real-orphan - what things are happening today that I am similarly distracted from looking at, from naming, from addressing?
Let me suggest to you that distraction is no longer accidental or arbitrary. Distraction has become the tool of the conservatives to keep us in a silent dreaming state, to devalue anything we as writers and academics say and to ensure that the conservative position remains uncritiqued. And what a tool it is: it is so silent, so clever - we become our own jailers.
Let me unpack how it operates.
Those who critique are identified as groups - trade unionists, academics, students, journalists at the ABC, the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, the Age newspaper editors. You could add one or two more but it's a small list.
I do not need to walk you through the steps of how each of these groups has been worked over. Power has been gradually and systematically taken away from them. Their conditions have gradually eroded. They find themselves with longer and longer working hours, harder roads to promotion, a greater threat of redundancy. There are less and less funds or resources to do more and more. The number of clients are increased, the number of limitations and restrictions and watchdogs are increased. When standards fall, as they inevitably do, much is made of it - the lack of members in trade unions for example is made much of. In a recent exchange (November 2005) at the Senate Enquiry on Industrial Relations Laws, Senator Kevin Andrews attacked union leader, Bill Shorten, over his irrelevance because of the lack of union membership (Australian Workers' Union 2005).
In addition there are provided juicy, enticing, hard-to-get-at carrots. Australian Research Council grants, PhDs, publications, the promise of a job somewhere else are examples. Hannie Rayson used the carrot of a job with the UN in her tragedy Two Brothers (loosely based on the Costello brothers - one a federal politician, the other a church leader). It is a play about power and evil and manipulation of people. Tom is a low-paid lawyer and CEO of the Lawson (read Brotherhood of St Lawrence) Foundation - one tiny act of bad faith would land him a prestigious UN job helping thousands of refugees. His politician brother, Eggs, tempts him, taunts him. I will quote a scene at length to illustrate the tone of the play.
Often these government carrots take people in directions they never wanted to travel, working in groups where they are uncomfortable, on projects not of their own choice. It is very busy, hard and difficult work. It requires committees and emails and procedures. And just enough carrots are given out to keep the rest trying. All this is classical behaviourist training technique.
And distraction has other sides to it. To further dilute any escaping
critique from places such as the academy, a swag of belittling terms are
floated about in the public domain. We are members of the literati, somehow
beyond the real world. We are like sparrows, the chattering Chardonnay
classes, or have too much time on our hands drinking coffee and gossiping,
the latte set. Margaret Seares in a paper delivered at the 2003
Manning Clark House Day of Ideas said:
She goes on to speak of a culture of fear, and of the labelling of critique
of the government as 'un-Australian' - a dangerous stance given Howard's
new sedition laws?
Julianne Schultz in her introduction to the Griffith Review
issue People Like Us (2005) refers to this labelling as the rhetoric
of reaction, devices which 'preclude conversation, encourage people to
retreat into like-minded communities, and lose touch with their shared
humanity.' She points out that 'the biggest targets of this abusive rhetoric
are education and the media, the two institutions which
(James) Hunter (in his Cultural Wars 1991) predicted meant it
was likely that progressive values would prevail.' (Schultz
On 16 November 2005 Federal Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews
said of the group of 150 Industrial Relations academics whose representatives
were set to address his committee: 'A group of academics is no substitute
for common sense proposals' (Age 16/11/05).
And there we have it - 150 specialist academics dismissed in 11 words!
We think we have power?
The voice of critique has been silenced - it has been overworked to silence,
ridiculed to silence, made fearful to silence. For example, the weekend
after the new sedition laws were passed in the lower house, the only daily
newspaper which has an editorial critical of the Howard government ran
a week-long expose... about the new laws? No. Their enquiry was into public
transport in Melbourne. If that is not fear-driven delay and distraction
while the lawyers work out what can and cannot be printed, what is?
We now have a society where the criticism comes not from thoughtful or
informed sources but from radio talk-back hosts. The shock jocks masquerade
as unbiased but provide a right-wing commentary to their millions of listeners.
Marian Sawer in the Financial Review (2004) writes:
If all this seems a bit too conspiratorial, let me remind you of the
sort of academic work which gains newspaper coverage and support from
the talk-back hosts and associated media. Professor Mirko Bagaric and
his colleague Julie Clarke, both of the law department of Deakin University,
published a paper in an American law journal exploring the moral virtues
of the official use of torture in certain circumstances. Professor Bagaric
was flown to the University of San Francisco to be a keynote speaker alongside
General Janis Karpinski (now demoted to colonel), the officer formally
in charge of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. No doubt many see Professor
Bagaric - because of his mssage - as a successful international academic.
Of course what we are seeing here is an application of the ends justifying
the means. Take one life to save many lives, or a more important life
- whatever that means. It's the kind of argument the conservatives have
been using a lot lately. Let me give you some examples:
John Howard in a 7.30 Report interview with Kerry O'Brien... The
end here is a strong economy.
It's the kind of talk-back speak that has many saying: 'Of course, I
see that John.'
This ends-justifies-the-means rhetoric is so entrenched in the conservative
government that it is blatantly used in what is quite a comic manner.
On 22 November 2005 Attorney General Phillip Ruddock, while the media
were distracted by the new IR laws, released his call for submission to
amendments to the Native Title Act. He said:
In his statement he offers as justification for the weakening of Mabo,
the Native Title Act, the idea that Indigenous mums and dad at the moment
can't buy their own land. Can you picture it? Up at Yundamu for example,
wanting to take out a mortgage, buy the house, put in a barbie, add a
carport? By deliberately confusing culturally diverse notions of land
ownership, the Attorney General evokes some kind of suburban dream as
a justification for a serious attack on Indigenous people's rights. He
neglects to mention the interests of pastoralist and mining companies
which are clearly driving his agenda. Does Ruddock dream of restoring
terra nullius? We have to wonder.
But we are getting used to the rhetoric and it is beginning to sound
normal, commonplace. Let me give you a creative example of how the ends-justifies-the-means
sounds reasonable when dressed in contemporary language. David Hare's
documentary play Stuff Happens (2004) is a play dealing with the
political and diplomatic lead-up to the most recent Iraqi invasion. In
it a journalist asks:
How convincing this argument seems. We 'look down to condemn the exact
style in which'
Style seems such a harmless, fashion
sort of word. And if we take the moral position of saying that the ends
do not justify the means then we are perched on some moral high ground
where we look down condemning these poor suffering people. Clever, isn't
it. Hare as a major playwright knows the importance of, to paraphrase
Hannie Rayson, giving his best lines to the enemy.
Yet the play does more than this - it portrays Colin Powell as a tragic
figure whose endless efforts to prevent war is foiled by trickery and
deception. For Powell war is the failure of diplomacy, something he is
deeply committed to. Powell pleads to President Bush:
It is a masterful piece of theatre.
So this is our situation. We who are both writers and academics, who
have at our fingertips the enormously powerful device of being able to
critique and through our writing skills be heard and understood - a double
strength - have also through a combination of distraction, erosion of
our working conditions and ridicule of our social group been silenced.
In our place the shock jocks offer a critique which is deeply pro-conservatism,
fear-generating and supportive of the current conservative philosophy
that the ends justify the means.
What is missing in our country is widespread informed public debate.
Instead of it we are given a series of non-truths, many of which are believed
- the children overboard, weapons of mass destruction, the new sedition
laws based on UK laws, the navy did not witness or fail to give assistance
to the SIEV X sinking - all of which have been supported
by the conservative media. It is interesting to note from Greenwald's
documentary Outfoxed (2004) that of those
who watched US Fox TV 33% believed that weapons of mass destruction had
been found in Iraqi and 67% thought that the US military had
found links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Quaida.
In addition, for many young people the main source of news comes from
comedy programs. In the US the Pew Research Centre for the People and
the Press (2004) found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited the
comedy news shows, The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live
as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news. This
trend of getting critique through non traditional sources has not gone
unnoticed either by our local satirists or by the conservatives. In Paul
Gray's recent article in the Australian (16/11/05) he attacks the
local comedy news program The Glass House:
And Gray concludes with a call for tighter restrictions on the ABC:
Which is interesting since, according to a report tabled with the Senate
Committee (the Age 31/10/05)
the Howard government recently spent $55 million on their pro Industrial
Reform campaign. This is over 12% of the annual ABC budget. It seems that
it is legitimate to spend funds to promote but not to critique.
The first is George Gittoes' documentary Soundtrack to War (Gittoes 2004a). On the face of it the film is about soldiers at war and the kinds of music they listen to. It is full of cheerios to home and is filmed in a relaxed manner. It could have been more distraction. But a visit to the film's website will illustrate the strength in this anti-war documentary which places the responsibility of war firmly in the hands of the politicians. (Gittoes 2004b)
What is interesting about Gittoes' technique is that he doesn't give
us a running commentary, he lets the juxtaposition - of the soundtracks
the boys are listening to against the roads in which they drive - shock
us into new ideas. At once we are sympathetic to the lads - they are pawns
in a much bigger game, they are innocents hiding in a heavy metal soundscape.
But at the same time we are appalled at the realities of the war in Iraq.
The second example is the Time to Go, John phenomenon. A group
of Australian documentary makers, led from a Melbourne collective, decided
to contribute to the anti-Howard election campaign. There was no funding
and little time. Green Left comments:
They collected clips from footage they had in stock, worked it, musicians
wrote sound tracks, Rod Quantock donated his time as anchor man, lawyers
donated their time, cinemas took off other films and
rushed it into screenings all around the country. People bought the DVD
(2004) or they could freely download it. The collective
made so much money they set up a political film fund. They didn't achieve
their objective, since Howard was re-elected, but they surprised their
own industry by being able to pull the project together in such a short
time and with a budget of zero.
But the film has not been lost in alternative screenings or lefty shops.
Since the election the group have signed with Madman who are distributing
the DVD in newsagents and prominent DVD stores. These radical filmmakers
stood outside of the traditional grants, broadcasters, bottom and top
line budgets and the rest, and just did it. It's rough and it's awkward
and it's patchy, but it's exhilarating and thought-provoking and amazing,
all at once.
The third example is Hannie Rayson's play Two Brothers which I
have mentioned above. When first performed the play created a media frenzy
as conservative critics panned it while others sang its praises. Gerard
Henderson said in his review:
Henderson has given us the line up. He and Andrew Bolt were prolific
in their attack, I suspect because this play was not playing at a small
out-of-the-way experimental theatre but in the main Melbourne theatre
and part of the repertoire of the main company, the Melbourne Theatre
Company. Of course, thousands flocked to see what all the fuss was about
and the actors, sensing the importance of their work, imparted an electricity
to the stage. When I saw the play I wept at the final moments experiencing
the full Aristotelian purge of pity and fear.
So great was the frenzy that Rayson wrote a reply in which she said:
And she goes on to point out the totality of the conservative position
and lack of opposition:
Rayson alludes to another twist in the current situation. I want to suggest
to you that the old Labor and Liberal, left and right, rhetoric is no
longer as helpful as we might have hoped. The manipulation of language
has been so thoroughly and skilfully carried out that much of our well-worked
language of critique falls on suspicious and deaf ears. People, ordinary
decent people who are beginning to notice through the clouds of distraction
the atrocities that are occurring in the name of our government, are asking
moral not political questions and are aligning on moral not political
sides. Of course, you and I realize that the two are mixed, but I want
to suggest to you that we who are silenced are the minority who realizes
this. For the general mums and dads wanting to make a stand it is morality
that drives them, not politics. Remember the demonstrations against invading
Iraq in 2003? The streets were filled but in a new way. Where once anti-war
marches were collective affairs, these marches were characterized by people
demonstrating under individual banners. Wit, humour and pathos were common
in these banners, as were professions - Architects Against War
or Dog Groomers Say No War. Here a group of artists got together
for an anti-war protest in Sacramento, US in 2003. Such images are common
on the web.
(Sourced from: http://dillingertoons.dillwood.org/inthestreets/
Quoted for educational and research purposes only)
The cultural phenomenon spread quickly and was so prolific that my daughter and I made our own banners and marched with hundreds of thousands - almost as many banners as people.
(Sourced from: Age 15 February 2003, Picture AAP. Quoted
for educational and research purposes only)
Protesting became personal and probably more to do with joining a group
from your gym than with aligning with any political party. Globally it
had become a kind of conscience vote-by-your-feet event.
[It can be added that in the more recent December 2005 mass rallies against
the new IR laws people stood up not under individual banners but in their
professions or trades. If you marched it was probably in an academic gown
with a group of other academics. People wore their clothes of trade and
marched under the banner of their profession or industry. The issues were
about work and people grouped in work-related numbers. This photo shows
groupings of colour as marches wore their traditional work clothes. Notice
the absence of individual placards.
(Sourced from: https: www.cpsusurveys.org.au/photogallery/ Quoted
for educational and research purposes only)
But it is too simplistic to claim the mass rallies as a victory for unionism.
One surmises that the people who stood on the streets protesting about
the IR laws will not, in the main, join their union - that is too strong
a step, too politically motivated. Instead they were sending a work-orientated
message to their government that change was moving too fast.]
In addition, traditional conservative voices have begun to offer critique
of the government. Arch conservative Archbishop George Pell, who wants
to wind back the clock and re-introduce blame into the divorce laws, criticized
Howard's Industrial Reform Bill. As did Pru Goward, a personal friend
of Howard and his appointment as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner of
the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Goward did
not mince words; she emphatically claimed that the current IR legislation
would mean the end to employer-funded, paid maternity leave. Similarly,
Malcom Fraser and other Liberals have long been critical of Howard's immigration
policy and his treatment of refugees.
We have a situation where much of the opposition and critique is coming
from voices in the conservative camp while the traditional opposition
remains curiously conservative and too often silent.
Is there a way forward? I think there is. But I'm not sure it will come
from the methods employed by the 150 IR specialist academics. It comes
I think, from us, from the joint skills of being able to critique and
being able to entertain. We know the art of story telling, and knowing
that is a powerful device which we have at our disposal.
I have quoted a number of creative sources in this paper, places where
people are working and critiquing, are recognizing the distractions and
offering new ways of speaking. They have all come from performance - in
this I include theatre, comedy TV and documentaries. In the 1960s, in
what was called the counter-cultural revolution, much of the ways of seeing
came from music, lyrics and poetry. I want to suggest, as Paris burns
again, that this time it is coming from performance. Obvious examples
include Hannie Rayson's Two Brothers, David Hare's Stuff Happens,
George Gittoes' Soundtrack to War, the political documentaries
Outfoxed, The Corporation and Time to Go, John, and
the comedy program The Glass House. These performance works are
in the public arena - available in scripts, and as DVDs in newsagents
The critique is also coming from seemingly non-political performances
which tear up structure and replace it with something more alarming, more
revealing. I'm thinking here of groups like the Forced Entertainment company,
a group of clowns led by director/writer Tim Etchells based in Sheffield,
whose recent Australian tour of Bloody Mess confused critics and
left audiences laughing but curiously disturbed, as if we had been asked
to see again the world around us. Etchells writes:
But by no means all theatre occupies this space. David Williamson's recent
play Influence (2005) has a central character, a shock jock, who
is entertaining rather than provocative, slick rather than confrontational.
The play is set in the private prejudices of the central character rather
than in the tragic consequences of the ends justifying the means as a
philosophy of government policy-making.
Bryce Hallett in a Sydney Morning Herald review comments:
Williamson's play disengages with the tragic and in its flaws we can
see the strength in the other works. Are these works important for our
times because they explore and re-invigorate tragedy? Is that the way
to snare the products of an ends-justify-the-means philosophy?
It caught my eye in a recent edition of the 7.30 Report when
Christopher Patten made use of David Hare's interpretation of Powell.
I don't know for certain that Patten had seen the Hare play, but it is
reasonable to assume he knows of it. He commented on Colin Powell: "I
think Colin Powell is a slightly tragic figure because
of the way he becomes - because of the way he was used by the Administration
which he served" (Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Here is an example of how a play has helped to shape a commentary. The
play gave a way of seeing Powell, of making sense of a man who saw war
as failure, who desperately wanted to avoid his country being involved
in what is now often claimed to be an ill-thought-through invasion. This
is the power of writing. It is not didacticism, it is engaging with now,
with recent history and events, to construct tragedy, comedy, reflection.
It works, in part, because it is connected to the current environment.
I can't give you a blueprint, I can only point this out and hope that
some of you will avoid the conservative device of distraction and move
your research agendas into finding language to constructively critique
In the final section of the documentary Soundtrack to War a soldier
sings a Bloodhound Gang song:
I think the roof is on fire and it'd be a good thing to wake up and raise
Tess Brady co-edited TEXT with Nigel Krauth until 2005. She is currently editing with Krauth a collection of essays, Creative Writing: Theory Beyond Practice. Her publications include adult and children's fiction, radio drama and self-help (with Donna Lee Brien). Her website is www.tessbrady.com.au
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Vol 10 No 1 April 2006
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb