It refers to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, a magnificent study in mania and obsession:
“But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” Chapter 23
In a figurative sense, it speaks to me of the themes and schemes that are addressed in the thoughts, ideas, songs, poems and stories that will feature in this blog.
Other memorable quotations follow:
“For long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched out in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad”. Chapter 41
“Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Chapter 36
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”. Chapter 135
“Thirty years ago, we had a chance to save our planet. Almost nothing stood in our way – except ourselves”.
The New York Times recently devoted its weekly magazine to one article only, a lengthy feature by American novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich.
Losing Earthis a historical narrative of the years 1979 to 1989, a decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of global warming and climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos taken over the past year by George Steinmetz. The article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe.
It will come as a revelation to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.
As early as the mid ‘sixties, American scientists and intelligence experts were warning how increasing carbon emissions and what Rich describes as “the unwitting weaponisation of the weather” could alter weather patterns and wreak famine, drought and economic collapse. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee was its published its executive report on carbon dioxide warned of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters — changes that would require no less than a coordinated global effort to forestall. In 1974, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on the carbon-dioxide problem. It concluded that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.”
It was recognised that unless coal production and use was phased out and fossil fuel combustion dramatically reduced, the world was careering toward an existential crisis. And the all important questions were asked: Could the global warming trend be reversed? Was there time to act? How would a global commitment to cease burning fossil fuels come about,? And, crucially, who had the power to make such a thing happen?
The ritual repeated itself every few years. Industry scientists, at the behest of their corporate bosses, reviewed the problem and found good reasons for alarm and better excuses to do nothing. Why should they act when almost nobody within the United States government — nor, for that matter, within the environmental movement — seemed worried?
Why take on an intractable problem that would not be detected until this generation of employees was safely retired? Worse, the solutions seemed more punitive than the problem itself. Historically, energy use had correlated to economic growth — the more fossil fuels we burned, the better our lives became. Why mess with that?
In July 1883, National Academy of Sciences commissioned a 500 page report, ‘Changing Clinate’. Things were dire but there should be caution and not panic. Better to wait and see. Better to bet on American ingenuity to save the day. Yes, the climate would change, mostly for the worst, but future generations would be better equipped to change with it. America had solved every existential problem it had confronted over the previous generation; it would not be daunted by an excess of carbon dioxide.
The Washington Post called this “clarion calls to inaction”, loud-sounding nothing’s which the administration and the fossil-fuel industry willingly bought into.
Whilst acknowledging the phenomenon, scientists, politicians and fossil industry executives argued about the urgency and the means. President Reagan indeed appeared determined to reverse the environmental achievements of Jimmy Carter, before undoing those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and, if he could get away with it, Theodore Roosevelt.
Because of the lag between cause and effect, it was unlikely that humankind would detect hard evidence of warming until it was too late to reverse it. At a congressional hearing in 1982, Melvin Calvin, a Berkeley chemist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the carbon cycle, said that it was useless to wait for stronger evidence of warming. The time for action was past … “It is already later than you think.”
Three decades ago, the problem was recognized by scientists, industrial leaders and politicians of all parties. But then, it was if a stupid bomb dropped. As Rich writes in his epilogue, “Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us”.
Can we turn things around? The prognosis is not an optimistic one. It would appear that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. “ … we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison”.
Is it only six months since the cream of Australia’s intelligentsia, including those famous insider outsiders Mark Latham and Ross Cameron, News Corp flunkies Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtson, Alan Jones (of course), the entire Whine Nation cabal, including the irritating dwarf Malcolm Roberts (now consigned to that limbo where lame ex-pollies languish), and that gruesome twosome Cory Bernadi and George Christiansen rocked up to salute confused libertarian and Alt-Right poster-boy Milo Yiannopoulos?
[Author’s note: this piece was penned (don’t we miss that anachronism!) in a fit of frolic and nostalgia. I found Milo’s adventures in Australia quite entertaining and informative. May he come back soon! Many of the places and personages mentioned herein may be unknown to readers who are unacquainted with the politics of our great southern land. I beg your indulgence.]
That giant can of ‘Milo’ ? ‘Milo’ is a chocolate powder, often served in hot milk, and commonly given to kiddies as a dinkum night-cap (thus guaranteed to keep them up all night long). It is one of many Aussie icons – alongside meat pies, lamington cakes, kangaroos, the late Steve Irwin, and the ABC (our national broadcaster, which many on the right would like to see abolished). And we have many such BIG Things in Australia. Like the Big Merino in Goulburn, the Big Prawn in Ballina, and the Big Banana in my own regional centre, Coffs Harbour]
Did Milo REALLY make such a big impression DownUnder when he was out here last December? At the time, I thought that it was just shock jocks, insider “outsiders” (or is it outsider “insiders”?), a One Nation coven, and a mob of journos who view politics as entertainment, who fawned at the feet of this strange muppet.
I guess we will never really know because the media, forever breathlessly covering our antipodean political blood-sport, generally loses all sense of objectivity and proportion. And in vicariously entertaining and picturesque way, the carnival was quite newsworthy.
There was wide media coverage as demonstrators of all stripes flocked to Milo’s clandestine but well-publicized-Melbourne gig in their tens and proceeded to get stuck into each other, and the police turned out in force to break up the very telegenic brawl. Milo’s myrmidons were sighted sporting Trump flags and red “Make America Great Again” caps (which goes to show what an unoriginal lot we Aussies are). Guy Rundle of e-zine Crikey sent an entertaining dispatch from the Flemington front-line on 4th December 2018 (it is republished below). Damian Costas, the organizer of the event, who also happens to be the publisher of Australian Penthouse, Was billed A$50,000 for the services of the boys in blues, but he has yet to pay up. A case of “free speech, one each”?
it was a gift that kept on giving. Soon afterwards, celebrity sex therapist, Milo-fangirl and occasional News Corp mouthpiece Bettina Arndt spent quality time with Milo (our featured image), and joined the opinionistas of the House of Rupert by writing to a News Corp and Institute of Public Affairs template in an opinion piece in The Australian which echoed a Janet Albrechtsonesque angst about left-wing university group-think into a contrived diatribe against the preponderance of young women in said left-wing ranks. Universities, she says, are brainwashing our damsels and transforming them into latter-day Mesdames Defarge.
And yet, Betty, maybe girls were already left-wing before they enrolled in Uni. And one really can understand why they veer to the left given the example set by the conservative right-wing males who dominate our politics, business, churches and media. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and “the powers that be” do not like it.
They do not like very much, it seems. It is becoming quite predictable that “culture war” opinionistas coopt any contrarian who comes along as a crusader for their conservative cause. Late militant atheist Brit Christopher Hitchens; dissenting Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomberg; Canadian psychologist Jordan Petersen. Even eccentric and useless climate-change denialist Viscount Christopher Walter Monckton. So it was not unusual that Milo got a guernsey from the News Corp chattercrats. As did Milo’s mate, photogenic Canadian Alt Right poster girl Lauren Southern who dropped in on us last month. Laurie canceled her New Zealand speaking tour, however, after the Mayor of Auckland banned her from speaking in his burgh. Yet another example of how the Kiwis are doing things better than its neighbour across the Tasman these days.
The whole Milo mythos is founded upon a world of make-belief, a political world overly determined by rhetoric, fear and loathing, fireworks and fictions. It is driven by false narratives that envelop false hopes and expectations. But, like that big can of chocolate powder, we like big things in Australia, and if they are not as huge as we like them, in the immortal word of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, we make it so …
And so, whenever the likes of Milo and his ilk land on our fatuous shore, they are feted by the right and vilified by the left whilst the affronted at every hand huff and puff in self-righteous indignation, posture and pontificate, vigorously virtue-signaling energetically to their minuscule covens. The chucks cluck, the dogs bark, and the circus leaves town.
As Led Zeppelin once crooned, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”. But, as John Lennon sang: “Strange days indeed! Most peculiar, Mama!”
[I’ve just remembered what Milo’s martial get-up reminds me of – Michael Jackson. As the Donald would say, “Sad”]
Peter Fitzsimmons wrote a highly amusing piece in the SMH recently. Read ithere, or in full at the end of this post, he also reveals that Brexit bon-viveur Nigel Farge will grace our shores shortly. be still my beating heart!
Guy Rundle reminisces in Crikey ,4th December 2018:
Night had fallen on Flemington when your correspondent rocked up to the Milo extravaganza. The houso flats across the road, sheer cliffs of lights, the Citylink overpass glowing green on the other side.
Racecourse Road was blocked off either side of the Milo venue, Melbourne Pavilion, an old art deco hall with a concrete box attached to one end of it. “Weddings Events Functions” reads the sign on the side. All that, and, inevitably, boxing too.
Big cop trucks at each end of the area, flashing red and blue, cop helicopter thrumming overhead.
Cops and cops and cops around. Cops in yellow hi-viz; cops in blue; black-clad ninja-turtle riot squad. Rings and rings of them. Cops in number absurd.
“No place for fascists no place for fascists” or something, shout coming from the grounds beneath the flats. “We live here, fuck off.” The remnant left protesters, hardy anarchists mostly, had been joined by locals, young mainly, African mainly, from the flats.
The Milo late-show crowd were arriving on the other side of the street. They gleamed white in the fluoro and arc lights. A few Mediterranean types, of martial arts/UFC styling, top-crop hair and T-shirted, hard-body man tits. But mostly Anglo, boiled-potato pale.
“They don’t even know what they’re protesting,” they laughed, at the protesters.
“It was easy to get a park, because protestors don’t own cars.” That got a big laugh.
“How can Milo be a racist? He’s married to a black man!”
“I know! I know!”
Heard that exchange six times if once. A sort of alt-right ring tone.
I’d missed the early session argy-bargy, because I’d been to — what else? — a book launch in Fitzroy. The first show crowd were just coming out, the cops directing them down a corridor between temporary barriers, running down a side street.
“Go go go go this way this way this way” — the cops treated it like they were getting the Kurds out of Iraq. The protesters were half a kilometre away.
“Lot of cops to protect one paedophilia advocate,” I said loudly, and one cop on the end of the line winced, visibly. I made a mental note.
The place was in lockdown, yet I was drifting easily back and forth between the lines, threading through the riot cops, my press card in a lanyard. Admirable respect for free activity of the press I thought.
Then I looked at the stage door, where bouncers and tour officials were gathered. Fat men in dark suits and lanyards, they — ah.
The cops thought I was with the tour.
There were 600 in the early show, took a while to get them out. They clutched copies of Dangerous, Milo’s self-published book, and copies of Australian Penthouse, sponsors of the tour, and my sometime publishers (hello, fellows! You still owe me author’s copies of the September and October issues by the way. Send them to the Crikey office, please).
“The show was great,” Trisha told me, without much prompting. Trump-style red baseball cap, bottle-blonde, fake-leather jacket, two copies of Dangerous, two copies of Penthouse. “I just love him, he’s so funny.”
“What do you like in what he’s saying?”
She thought for a long time.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh … well, I mean immigration. Not that we don’t like Muslims! Just not the wrong ones!”
“There anyone in Australia who inspires you like he does?”
“No one! No one!”
“He’s pretty boring.”
‘What about the pro-paedophilia stuff? ‘Thirteen year old boys can consent meaningfully’ …”
Ponytail man came up. There were a lot of ponytails in this crowd. Long, short, ’80s adman, postmodern architect, vegan grindcore maleorexic, Milo’s little ponies.
“I’ve seen Milo four times.” Ponytail man was soft-faced, soft-bodied. Milo men are either hard-body keto warriors, living off bullet coffee enemas and T-gel patches, or they appear to be carved from a giant bar of soap. Ponytail man wore a red tie, and a white cotton suit, over hips that wobbled like an offal tray.
“How was he tonight?”
“Top form, top form.” As if speaking of an employee.
“What’s the most important issue facing Australia today?”
“Oh corporate control. Banks, globalisation …”
“Who do you like politically here-“
“Oh the Citizens Electoral Council make … sense.” (A LaRouchite! I’d found a LaRouchite!)
“We need a state-owned bank, public ownership,” he said.
“But that’s exactly what most of the protesters would say!”
“Well, yes, we’ve got to build bridges …”
“And Milo, well, as far as he has any position at all, he’s sort of a gay Thatcherite.”
Ponytail’s eyes peeped out his puffy face, imploringly: don’t spoil this for me.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a music producer.”
“You make a living from that?”
“Well no,” he laughed, like George Martin between Beatles LPs. “I’m living off savings. And,” voice lowered, “getting some payments from the government.” (“Ah, Mr Ponytail,” the voice said on the phone at midnight, “you are too dangerous not to have on our side. Your fee will be dispatched fortnightly disguised as a Centrelink payment.”)
The helicopter thrummed, the protesters got louder. People were coming out of the flats now, it was getting big. Couple of smoke bombs went off near the tram stop, and the riot squad formed up in a phalanx. This was all piss-weak, yet they looked skittish. The more suited up cops are, the more scared they get.
Late-show arrivals, early-show departures commingled. Ross Cameron, the show MC, was walking around, looking at his notes, like anyone gave a damn what he said.
“You’re going to miss the late show Ross,” I said.
He looked up.
“Oh you’re right, yes, thanks very much,” and scurried in through the stage door. He thought I was security, too. Jesus, six Trots in Target suits and lanyards could have taken this place. It was Stupidolooza.
“Do you want to know what I think?” A large blonde swayed towards me, in big blue comedy shades, Jimmy Buffett fan sans margarita, and said, and I will sign an affidavit to this conversation, “they don’t like us cos we support Trump! Yahhhhhh,” she yelled towards the protestors “we’re lefties”.
“Oh hang on, no, I get those two mixed up.”
Her equally imposing friend turned up. “Stop talking to him.”
“This is my friend Tziporah,” Lefty said. “She knows a lot of stuff.”
Tziporah! Tziporah Malkah! Kate Fischer as was! Last time I’d seen her, I was writing lines for her for an awards night performance. A torturous joke that included the name “Wittgenstein”. It took a long time.
Tziporah had been casting herself as a Milo fan, or Milo-curious, hours earlier, posting a pic of herself kissing his pic on her “access all areas” pass. Now they wouldn’t let her in. Malkah and Lefty tottered back and forth between the entrances, but they’d been barred.
“You want to talk, call my agent,” Malkah said.
“But I don’t want to talk.”
“Call my agent.”
They tottered off.
The crowd was herded in, the old one herded off, the protesters got louder, plastic bottles started flying across the road.
Suddenly there was loud shouting, and a megaphone “back back, leave them alone …” and the riot squad, having demobbed, formed up again, and started coming across Racecourse Road to the flats.
I walked across with a few others. Malkah and Leftie, passes still dangling, had walked across to talk to the protesters, locals now, nearly all African, and appeared to have asked a question about Muslim extremism, and the organisers were having a bit of trouble restraining some of the more rambunctious.
“Back, back … OK OK look,” the organiser glanced around. No TV still around. “Leave the women alone! Leave the women alone!” Yeah. That would not have looked good on the news.
“Why are they holding this here –” one of the kids asked me, “to insult us?”
“It’s a boxing venue. They-“
The last anarchist charged over, white as the moon. “Don’t talk to the media! Don’t talk to the media.”
Big mistake. The kids, seeing his pale face and black hoodie thought he was a Milo-ister and laid into him. The organisers had to wade in and rescue him. It was all sorted out.
At which point, of course, the riot squad began to move, the Behan principle taking over (“no situation so bad, a policeman cannot make it worse,” Brendan Behan said).
Banging on their shields, they came into the flats gardens in a flank that even I could see was far too long. The kids got behind them. There was pelting with empty mineral-water bottles, the equivalent of a stern letter to The Flemington Leader. The squad narrowed their line and charged deep into the gardens. The kids legged it easily.
Piqued, the squad set up camp, holding a corden inside the gardens for 45 minutes, an empty Fanta can from the windows bouncing off a helmet now and again.
I tried the line again.
“Four hundred cops on night shift to defend a paedophile sympathiser. You must feel really proud of your work.” Tried it about half a dozen times. Pretty sure it got a few wobbles. Tease the cops about being agents of the banks, etc, no response. But, overtime aside, I don’t think anyone signed on to defend a Hitler Youth tribute act.
The gardens quietened.
‘Bout 11.30pm a cop car pulled up. A senior cop got out, took a look at the pointless vigil, and said something sharpish to the field commander. The riot squad moved backward slowly, and in 10 minutes they were gone.
Across the road, somewhere inside, a gay man likely to faint at the sight of a visible panty line was adjudicating on which women were and weren’t fuckable. Today, he’s addressing the right at Parliament House. Australian conservatism in our time.
Peter Fitzsimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, 7th August 2018
It remains one of my favourite bits of rugby writing.
In the late 1980s, after a Wallaby of modest repute changed national rugby camps to turn out for the Irish team instead, a writer for the Irish Timescommented: “Why is Ireland importing bad rugby five-eighths? Don’t we have enough bad rugby five-eighths of our own?”
Might I ask a different version of the same question for Australia in 2018?
Why on earth are we importing so many “alt-right” political nutters to Australia on speaking tours? Seriously, don’t we have enough alt-right – whatever that is – nutters of our own?
The most recent visitor to our shores was a 23-year-old Canadian, Lauren Southern, whose schtick seems to be warning about the dangers of Islam, multiculturalism, immigration, political correctness and the left side of politics in general, while also trying to right the many wrongs done to white people just because they are white. I repeat: she is just 23-years-old. From the fine, peaceful, happy country of Canada.
I ask you: how likely is it that this young woman, as fine as she might be, will have some wisdom, some insight into Australian affairs, something she can tell us, warn us about, that our own people of her ilk haven’t been saying around the clock, on the radio, in reams of columns, in parliament, on the street, for years?
Hasn’t Pauline Hanson been doing all of the above for a quarter of a century? Wasn’t our very own Malcolm Roberts a seer on these very issues? And isn’t he planning a comeback? (Where are you, Mr Roberts, by the way? A nation turns its lonely, bemused eyes to you.)
As for paying up to $750 to see Ms Southern, close-up, and speak? Please.
Save your money, my friends. Turn on Sky News After Dark any day of the week. You can watch hours of that kind of stuff, from the comfort of your own home. You can call Bronwyn Bishop “Butter,” ’cos she’s always on a roll, on those very subjects. And don’t forget Ross Cameron. And that other fellow, someone-or-other Hargraves. On Sunday night, and I am not making this up, they even provided a platform for Blair Cottrell – previously notable for his criminality, and for advocating that every Australian classroom should have a portrait of Hitler on the walls – to give his views on immigration. I am not making that up, I said! And tell us, Blair, given your boast about using “violence and terror”, to get what you want from women, your views on feminism?
Yes, Sky News costs a bit, but if you divide the cost of subscribing by the number of cans of Pissed-Off they serve up, it is, seriously, as cheap as chips.
The Brit, Nigel Farage, will also be here shortly, I gather. He, you’ll recall, rose to fame by running the campaign which saw Britain commit to the economic suicide of Brexit and then turned his back on the whole mess, waltzing away on something of a world speaking tour. What, pray tell, can he see, that our own nutters haven’t spotted? In the first place, we don’t have a Brexit situation and in the second place, he’s never lived here, never shared our experience, never had much to do with us at all. So what would he know that, say, Alan Jones doesn’t?
Alan’s great on that kind of thing generally. When he speaks on the radio, there is never a pause, never a nuance to be examined, never a grey area which he is not sure about – he delivers outraged certainty, for a good 15 hours a week. Everything is either right or wrong, it is mostly wrong, and he is the only man who can right the wrongs. All your prejudices will be fed, all the bleak angels in your nature can gorge themselves and you can hit the day roundly pissed off at about 15 things at once. Yes, Alan is, as Paul Keating once described him, a “middle-of-the-road fascist” but he’s our middle-of-the-road fascist and that has to count for something, dammit.
For the Fascist 1500 metre race, our Alan would lap Farage. Not only that, he has endurance. I first heard Alan ranting like that in the Manly rugby dressing sheds, in 1983, and he is still going strong.
Milo Yiannopoulos? I frankly can’t remember what he was all about when he visited earlier in the year – I think it was most of the above, bar ganging up on gays – and only recall that our own Mark Latham delighted in displaying a photo of himself kissing him on the cheek. That would be a fair indication that Latham believes in his views, so if that is the stuff you want, my fellow Australians, if the Yiannopoulos brand of outrage is your thing, buy home-grown, buy Latham. He is producing so much of that highly refined bile – the really good Aussie stuff, not that imported rot – he is giving it away.
I am serious about this.
A consistent theme of the whole alt-Right thing, is to defend Australia, stop the bastards at our borders, say no to foreigners of all descriptions, make Australia great again by putting Australia first, etc.
Can’t the people who espouse all this then, and who want to consume that kind of stuff, start with our own nutters and set a good example?
Support Alan. Support Mark. Support Bronwyn and Pauline. And bring back Malcolm Roberts, the real star of the whole show.
But Blair Cottrell? Actually, no. Even we, have to draw the line somewhere.
An earlier version of this comment was briefly published online last month .
You cannot stop the birds of sadness from passing overhead, but you can sure as hell stop them nesting in your hair.
It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound.
The Making of Martin Sparrow, Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, is set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River, north of Windsor, and the treacherous terrain of the Colo Gorge.
But first, some background history…
Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia. It had began transporting convicts to the American colonies in the early 17th century, but the American Revolution put an end to this. An alternative was required to relieve the overcrowding of British prisons and the decommissioned warships, the hulks, that were used to house the overflow. In 1770, navigator Captain James Cook had claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain, and pre-empting French designs on Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land was selected as the site of a penal colony. In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish the first European settlement on the continent. Botany Bay, named by Cook for its abundant and unique flora and fauna, was deemed unsuited, and six days later, the fleet hove to In the natural harbour to its north and established Sydney, named for the fleet’s commander. Other penal colonies were later established in Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land – in 1803 and Queensland In 1824, whilst Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and reduced significantly in succeeding decades. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868.
Convicts were transported primarily for petty crimes – serious crimes, like rape and murder, were punishable by death. But many were political prisoners, exiled for their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the nascent trade union movement. Their terms served, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, and joining the free settlers, many rose to prominent positions in Australian society and commerce. Yet they and their heirs bore a social stigma – convict origins were for a long time a source of shame: “the convict stain”. Nowadays, more confident of our identity and our national story, many Australians regard a convict lineage as a cause for pride. A fifth of today’s Australians are believed to be descended from transported convicts.
A wise man doesn’t burn his bridges until he knows he can part the waters
In the young colony, for free and unfree, men and women alike, life could be nasty, brutish and short, beset by hard labour, hard living and for many, hard liquor, cursed with casual violence, and kept in order by a draconian regime of civil and military justice. Particularly so for the felons, formerly of the convict transports, and only moderately less for free settlers and the expirees, former convicts endeavouring to make a living on hard-scrabble blocks on the outer fringes of the Sydney Basin, far from young and barely civilized Sydney Town.
Sydney Society 1800
His history credentials are evident in his feel for the time and the place, the lifestyle and its accoutrements. And it’s a good pitch for a motion picture. A colonial “western” indeed, for the book echoes those fine films that portray the sordid and seedy side of the pioneer story, like Altman’s chilly McCabe and Mrs Miller, and latterly, the magnificently decadent Deadwood, with less brutal elements of Alexandra Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I noted at least two lines borrowed from classic westerns – Clint Eastwood’s avenger tale The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Arthur Penn’s frontier drama The Missouri Breaks – and there are probably more.
Cochrane has assembled a cast that is as representative and as colourful of the transplanted populace as it undoubtedly was, although some may come across to readers as a tad stereotypical so and over-the-top. Loyal and honest servants of the crown like dour, Scottish Chief Constable Alister Mackie and his erudite sidekick American Thaddeus Cuff, who is never lost for bon mots and folk wisdom; whores that would not be out of place in Deadwood’s seedy Gem; cruel and corrupt soldiers who are a law unto themselves; veterans of the Indian wars (waged by the East India Company, that is), some soberly righteous and others less so, given to either producing or consuming in excess a hooch named for its after effects: “bang-head”); unscrupulous and violent sealers, hunters, bushmen, and escaped convicts; and a wise and inquisitive doctor and an eccentric and obsessively peregrinating botanist intent on determining how the platypus produces its young. And, that unlikely trio at the commencement of this piece.
For many of the characters, and particularly the melancholy Martin Sparrow, it is a tale of hope and renewal, survival and redemption – again like those westerns. There is something about “the frontier”, on the lawless and dangerous edges of civilization that tries and proves a man or woman’s soul. Cuff declares that “all life turns on a pitiless whee”, but, he adds, “we ain’t stuck in brutishness. We got a choice”. Damnation and redemption walk hand in hand. It is perhaps no coincidence one of the river’s most righteous settlers, the former Redcoat Joe Franks, has a passion for seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a saga of faith in adversity written whilst the author was doing a twelve year stretch for his religious beliefs. Hope springs eternal on the Hobbesian frontier, and we are constantly reminded of this by the sardonic constables: “hope is the poor mans bread”, but he who lives on hope dies fasting. Whilst hope might be “the mainspring of faith, it is also “physician to misery” and “grief’s music”. And yet, to the irrepressible Romany girl, who has seen and suffered much, it might also be the “little songbird in the well of our troubled soul”.
… the search for happiness can be like the search for your spectacles when they’re sittin’ on your nose.
The country into which most of the cast venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country”. Cochrane acknowledges the traditional owners as they roam the fringes of his story and often venture into it, mostly as a benign presence, aiding and advising the protagonists in the mysterious ways of the wilderness.
Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding. “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “They don’t reckon we’re the Christians, Marty … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.
But they know in their hearts that the ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. To paraphrase Henry Reynolds, acclaimed chronicler of the frontier wars, they can hear that uneasy whispering in their hearts.
It is Cochrane’s description of the landscape that makes an otherwise entertaining but derivative “quest” narrative soar to literally panoramic heights:
“They heard the sound of frogmouths and boobooks and night birds unknown to them, and heard the whoosh and splash and snack of fish jumping in the shallows and the constant sound of the tide chafing the banks and far off a dig howling, and they saw the river rats scurrying for cover and myriad shapes in the dark recesses of the forest and higher up they saw great bands of ancient sandstone, moonlit, cracked and fissured by the chisel work of ages”.
“They stood atop a cliff wall that ran north to the dense green line that marked the horizon, above a point where the valley was lost in the braided folds of mountain spurs and patches stone and a wash of the darkest forest green … The far cliffs were fractured by heavily forested gullies and slot canyons carved deep through stone. To the north he could see open patches of grassland on the valley floor, the lumpy shapes of marsupials grazing, smaller things foraging, clustered together, wood ducks and a flock of black cockatoos in full flight following the line of the far wall, the stone there fissured and scarred like the hide of a dragon”.
“Soon they were there, standing four in a line atop the stone cliffs, a sheer drop to the thickly timbered slopes that flattened to a valley floor perhaps a mile away, the river there flanked by irregular patches of forest and grass meadow and game feeding on the grasses – emu and wallaby, a wild dog loping along, and wildfowl breaking from the reeds. They saw a flock of parrots skimming the canopy, their colours coursing down like windswept rain. They saw a wedge-tailed eagle, those ragged wings, wheeling, slow, hypnotic, in the heavens above”.
Landscapes such as these are familiar to me. I view them from high places and walk the forests, and I have seen and heard the myriad birds and animals that inhabit the lands east of our Great Dividing Range. Indeed, many of them I view from my home in the forest. I felt the thrill of recognition as Cochrane’s adventurers ventured forth.
Breathtakingly beautiful it might be, but, then and now, it’s a hard and dangerous land. “… deadly cruel if you’re lost in there. I tell you both this: the wilderness in the west begs a certain reverence and demands a certain humility”. The weather swings from searing heat to devastating floods – it is such a deluge that propels Martin Sparrow on his odyssey. The terrain in treacherous – one careless misstep and a fall can be deadly. The flora and the fauna might be exotic and magical to behold, but not everything is benign. There are snakes, funnel webs, wild dogs, eels, and bull sharks, and a particularly unpleasant wild pig. The travelers are constantly checking for mosquitoes, leeches and ticks. And the deadliest of all, the humans.
Well, these days it seems all the wilderness does is abet a multitude of crimes and occasionally a smidgen of restitution I suppose. Small mercies.
A perilous place the bush may have been, but that did not deter those who sought to venture there and indeed, find path through the Great Dividing Range. In ensuing decades, many explorers would weave their way westwards to view that “vision splendid of the western plains extended”, as our national bard described it. But in convict days, the vision splendid was one of freedom, from slavery’s metaphorical chains (actual irons were not required in the colony – the dense and impenetrable forests that covered the lowlands and the slopes of the ranges were as “iron bars all the way to the sky” and the nomadic “savages”, de facto guards, so to speak, and for freedmen, from backbreaking toil of the their meagre farmsteads. “… it’s the misery of this mercantile tyranny … or the sovereignty of the commonweal, fire of the brutish parties that govern us here”.
Tales of an inland haven, a sanctuary from the military despotism and the rigours of pioneering were part of the convict “dreaming”. Some say this was a rhetorical ploy to keep throw the Law off the scent as the real escape route was by boat along the coast. The authorities dismissed it as a fantasy, a fable, or, to quote Robbie Robertson, “a drunkard’s dream if ever I did see one”. All that lay out yonder was trial and tribulation and death by a thousand stings, bites, or spears.
And yet, the magical thinking of a happy land far, far away is part of our human storytelling. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dream of really do come true”. Even Westworld’‘s androids, who yearn, like Pinocchio, to be human, roam relentlessly towards the freedom of “the valley beyond”.
The notion of becoming a “bolter”is the primary theme of the story, and indeed the “making” of the luckless, lovelorn, indebted and hence perennially, melancholy Martin Sparrow who was ever wont to “stagger from one calamity to another”. A paradisaical village of free folk beyond the mountain fastness and the long arm of the constabulary, “embossemed” by “a river of the first magnitude” that winds its way to a mighty, whale-splashed ocean far to the west of the unknown continent, as they note, the celebrated Mr Flinders himself had surmised, their wants satisfied by bevies of copper-coloured women:
“And there it is, the most beautiful grassy woodlands that you are ever to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees, by a most majestic river, flowing west, as far as the eye can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee-deep in the shallows, casting their nets … Olive-skinned, well-favored by nature and most pliable and yielding in all regards”.
Give a man his wish, you take away his dreams.
And so, amidst Cochrane’s historical and political exposition – and he wears his historian heart on his sleeve – and remarkable scenic descriptions, a mob of folk of widely disparate authority, status, means, temperament and ability head off in twos and threes into the wild. Some are driven by duty; for others, it’s a living; and for our unlikely duo and dog, it’s a quixotic leap in the dark. Some perish, others sicken, and several arrive at their own epiphanies and apotheoses. I recall Paul Simon: “Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there”; and also, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s observation that often, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”.
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so: “Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges— “Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer (1898)
This beautiful song was written by Brendan Graham for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 2012 to commemorate the immigration to Australia of over four thousand female orphans who, between 1848 and 1850, were brought from Ireland during the Great Hunger. It is performed by the celebrated Choral Scholars of University College of Dublin, featuring soloist Abby Molloy
As part of its marketing strategy, publisher Penguin Books, has seen fit to share extracts from the opening chapter of The Making of Martin Sparrow. I have republished them below.
Sparrow woke on wet sand somewhere downriver with a terrible stink in his nostrils, the smell of death and decay, rot and ruin all about. At first he did not stir, there in the pre-dawn, pale light to the east beyond the river, the tide on the turn, ebbing now, the flow yet a faint murmur in his ears.
Confusion held him still, as did the formidable lassitude in his bones and the damp cold on his skin. The sound of his breathing confirmed the likelihood that he was alive. He raised his head and looked about, sucked up a wad of gritty phlegm and spat onto the sand. He wondered if perhaps his deliverance was the work of a kindly fate, a chance to make good his miserable existence. Hard to know.
The sand was strewn with muck and wreckage. The hen coop was there, his hens dead, in company with tangles of lumber and thatch, fence posts and scoured saplings, a big, raggedy cut of wagon canvas and a lidless coffin, the muddied panelling infested with yellow mould that glowed bright in the soft dawn light.
He sat up and brushed himself off, noticed a long cut on the inside of his forearm, but it wasn’t bad. If it was bad, deep, he might have bled to death while he lay there in the dark, half drowned. But it wasn’t and he didn’t. That was lucky.
He studied the coffin; reckoned sooner or later he’d have to take a look, in all probability stare rotting death in the face. A crow alighted on the rim, shuffled one way then the other, then hopped in, keen to join its companions. Sparrow saw a flurry of black wings as the disputatious gathering settled to its work.
There was a blood-soaked tear in his britches and a hungry leech on his thigh, like a small, fat velvet purse. He flicked the greedy little sucker onto the ground, took a twig and pierced it, watching his own blood spill out and colour the sand to russet.
In the shallows he scooped up a fragment of the Sydney Gazette, but the newspaper dissolved in his fingers as he tried to unfold the sodden sheet.
Sparrow surveyed the farms beyond the river, the flooded fields; wildfowl feeding on the flattened corn, flood-wrack washing seawards on the flow. He dropped to his knees and laved water onto the little puncture wound on his thigh and the cut on his arm. Quite why he did that he did not know for he was otherwise layered in muck all over.
Memories washed about inside his head dispelling some of the confusion – the lightning storm, the torrents of rain, the hen coop caught in the violent flow; wheat stacks coursing the river; the unremitting fury of the waters, crops awash, the bottoms gone; the exodus of reptiles; the dismal cries from distant quarters, the sound of muskets dangerously charged.
He got up and turned about, scanned the lowlands to the west, the mountains far off, full of mystery and foreboding, and full of promise too.
The sound: the ebbing tide, the pecking crows.
Sparrow stepped quietly from the water. Stood. Listened some more. He crossed the sand, took hold of the wagon sheet, heavy with wet, and edged towards the coffin until he could see the beaks spearing into that shrunken face riddled with wounds, a fledgling on the old man’s chest, pecking at his coffin suit. He did not hesitate, for their pleasure had filled him with an unfamiliar wrath and rendered him vengeful. He hurled the wagon sheet across the coffin. The captive birds panicked and leapt into the cloth and flapped and squawked and leapt again, like hearts beating in some hideous thing.
Sparrow took hold of a heavy stick and began to beat the cloth with all his might. A wing appeared askew the panelling and he smashed at it and heard the creature scream. And he kept on just so, until the canvas lay sunken in the coffin and the birds were all but still, dead or dying, their frames faintly visible. He leant on the stick, sucking for breath, awaiting further movement in the coffin, watching as blood seeped into the cloth. The birds made a few pitiful sounds, now and then a ripple or a shudder or the flap of a wing.
Sparrow stood over the coffin until the cloth stopped moving. He looked west to the mountains. Tiredness took hold. ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe I don’t got the mettle,’ he said.
He crossed the sand, stood over his coop, dropped to his knees. His hens in death, his good, sweet, giving birds, were naught but a lumpy pile of dirty feathers and claws.
He reached into the coop and gently palmed his birds apart, settling his hand upon a muddied wing; recalled the signs: the lightning storm in that inky blackness over the mountains, the discolouration of the flow and the rapid rise of the river.
But the waters had receded, briefly – a most deceptive interval that filled Sparrow with a false notion of security and he had not then seized his opportunity. He had not got in his crop, not one ear of corn; nor had he got his scarce possessions off the floor of his hut, nor moved the coop to higher ground, thus condemning the hens to a most frightful expiration, such an end as filled Sparrow with dread for reasons he did not care to contemplate. For all that, he was truly sorry.
More than once Mortimer Craggs had told him to stop being sorry. ‘Sorry for this, sorry for that,’ said Mort. ‘You got to stop being sorry, Marty, you gotta stop forthwith and seize the dream, for therein lies our path to an unfettered liberty, y’foller me?’
Sparrow did not quite follow, but he’d said yes anyway for he did not want further badgering from Mort, who was a fierce badgerer and a most indiscriminately violent man once roused. Mort might well whack a man; or he might take a filleting knife and slit his nose. You never did know what Mort might do.
Sparrow felt the sun on his back at last. Once more he looked west across the water-logged lowlands to the foothills and thence the mountains. He recalled his last conversation with Mort Craggs, before Mort took off with Shug McCafferty, before they bolted for freedom.
‘I just ain’t ready to go,’ he’d said. He was uncertain as to why Mort had invited him to join the bolt, for they were not friends, just acquaintances, a lethal acquaintance dating back to the years of his youth in the village of Blackley on the river Irk.
‘I think you don’t got the mettle, Martin,’ said Mort, fingering the ridge of proud flesh on his cropped ear.
‘I have things to say to Biddie first,’ said Sparrow.
‘Forget the whore, there’s women on the other side, there’s a big river, there’s a village, women aplenty, copper-coloured beauties, the diligence of their affections something to behold.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Can’t say, not till you commit to the venture, swear a binding oath.’
‘I cannot swear an oath, binding or otherwise, not yet.’
The very idea of copper-coloured women on the other side of the mountains puzzled Sparrow, deeply. He was somewhat lost for a perspective on this startling infomation. ‘Like the Otahetians?’ he said.
‘No, nothin’ like them and I can say no more Marty, not another word.’
And that was the last conversation he’d had with Mort Craggs.
Sparrow had to wonder if perhaps his yearning for Biddie Happ was a foolish dream. If it was not a foolish dream before the flood it most likely was now. His thirty-acre patch was swamped, his corn crib gone, his corn crop flat in the mud, the wildfowl, the borers and the mould most likely hard at work this very day. His hut might well be gone too, lost to the flood. His hens were dead, he was deep in hock, mostly to Alister Mackie, and would have to beg for seed for another crop and that meant more hock, regardless of the weather to come. In short, it was now most unlikely that Biddie would see any chance of elevating her prospects by joining with him, Martin Sparrow, former felon, time-expired convict, failed farmer on the flood-prone bottoms of the Hawkesbury River. Fool of a man.
He sat on the sand, bowed his head and ran his fingers down his forehead, over the faint indentations that continued onto his eyelids and cheeks, the all but faded scars that folk took to be the remnants of small pox.
He tried to sort his pictorial thoughts. That wasn’t easy with Biddie presenting herself in one instant and the copper-coloured beauties in the next. ‘I should have gone with Mort,’ he said aloud. He thought about the birthmark on Biddie’s face, the mark she tried to hide with that lovely sweep of hair, pinned just so. He wondered if copper-coloured women ever got birthmarks. As to that, he just didn’t know. The mysteries, numberless.
Alister Mackie sipped his Hai Seng tea, treading the porch boards by the tavern door, treading to waken his bones as the pale grey light of dawn brought the distant mountains into view and the mass of huddled humanity on the village square came to life, the refugees from the flood stirring from makeshift tents on rickety frames, tattered paniers lumpy with tools and keepsakes, waifs bedded in carts and barrows, piglets trussed and tumbled in the mud, game dogs on tethers and crated fowls crooning their disquiet.
He held the mug in his two hands, sniffed at the steam coming off the brew, searching the scene: the double guard on the stone granary and the commissariat store; soldiers by the barracks door in various measures of infantry undress; washerwomen in and out of the washhouse; the butcher, busy on his scaffold, a hundred pounds of pork on the hook; the little church, the smithy, the stone gaol. The village they called Prominence.
The drudge called Fish joined Mackie on the porch. He wiped his hands on his apron. ‘You want I take the mug?’ he said.
Mackie handed him the mug.
‘They’re hammered, like castaways, every last one of them,’ said Fish.
‘They are, yes.’
‘I seen floods, but I never seen a flood like this one.’
‘Here and there the tops of trees, otherwise an ocean.’
Mackie stepped off the porch. He weaved his way through the bivouac to the commissariat store on the far side of the square and from there he followed the ridgeline past the granary to the top of the switchback path, where he paused by the doctor’s cabin to scrutinise the work of the floodwaters below. The government garden, gone, an acre of greens torn from the slope as if scythed away by some pale rider’s mighty blade; the cottages on the terrace, squat and sodden, the weatherboard swollen and warped. Felons in the shallows, gathering up the ruins of the wharf, the guards perched on their haunches.
Mackie joined his constables, Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, at the foot of the switchback path and together they stepped from spongy duckboards into the shallows and clambered aboard the government sloop. Packing away the mooring lines, they drifted into the current and settled at their ease. A light westerly, a port tack, the wind and the tide obliging.
Cuff patted the planking beneath the rowlock, looking up into the big gaff rig as the sail took the wind. ‘This tub reminds me of Betty Pepper,’ he said. ‘Deceptive quickness in stout disguise, charms you’d never guess first off.’
He glanced back at the cottages on the terrace and there she was, Bet, watching them go; her porch strewn with soaked possessions, the high-water mark like a dirty wainscot on the cottage wall. The young strumpet Biddie Happ was there too, squaring a muddied rug on a makeshift line. Cuff raised his hat and Bet responded with a curt swish of her hand and took a broom and set to sweeping the mud off her porch. Biddie patted at the swathe of red hair that covered the birthmark on her face.
‘They’ll miss me,’ said Cuff, ‘they cannot help themselves.’ He grabbed the wicker handles on a gallon glass demijohn, upended it, took a swig, then another, and then he passed the receptacle to Dan Sprodd.
Sprodd took a swig and passed it back to Cuff who took another swig, knowing it would aggravate the chief constable.
‘Hardly underway, you set a fine example, Thaddeus,’ said Mackie.
‘Thank you!’ said Cuff.
‘You should ration that.’ Mackie wagged a finger at him.
‘I don’t go with the shoulds, the shoulds are a tyranny. I see no joy in rationing bang-head, or anything else for that matter,’ said Cuff.
‘Americans take their liberties very seriously,’ said Sprodd, as if Mackie was sorely in need of the information.
‘Indeed, we do!’ said Cuff.
‘As do I,’ said Mackie.
‘I’ll tell you now, spirits put clout and vigour in a man. You’ll get honest toil from a pint of bang-head, miracles of effort from a quart.’
‘That or the fatal dysenteries!’
Cuff quite liked the sound of the chief ’s lowland brogue but it was too early to argue with any persistence. Sleepiness, briefly, had the better of his contrarian temperament. ‘Hear that Dan?’ he said, ‘We are not to be trusted with the drink; we, the meritorious constabulary.’
You’re sposed to sit on you ass and nod at stupid things Man that’s hard to do But if you don’t they’ll screw you And if you do they’ll screw you too And I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone I always play to win when it comes to skin and bone
Warren Zevon, Bill Lee
The details of US President Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” for resolving the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict have been leaked, surmised or imagined – no one can be sure at this stage – for a while now. And it is one that the Palestinians would never agree to.
We provide below a selection of articles that discus the intimations, imperfections and implications of the plan that will ostensibly succeed where all other efforts have foundered because as Donald Trump has stated many times, “that is what I do”.
The US has lost its credibility as an “honest broker”, if it ever was one, that is. It is impossible to be a mediator in a conflict or develop a credible peace plan when one side refuses to even talk to you. Palestinian leaders have not met with senior U.S. officials for the past six months, not since Trump announced that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Move, it did! And now there are hints that the plan actually takes Jerusalem off the negotiating table.
The Palestinians are in a bind. If they reject the deal, especially one accepted by Israel, the Israeli government could once again argue that it has no partner on the Palestinian side, and move towards annexing large parts of the West Bank, which indeed a number of Israeli openly advocate, rendering the ever-receding prospect of the two-state solution impossible. The end result would push the sides even further apart.
The dice are loaded and the deal is rotten in what is a win-lose game. The nationalists and settlers would would be delighted, and the Palestinians on one hand and the Israeli opposition on the other would be simultaneously cut out and boxed in.
Veteran Middle East correspondent and long time Lebanese resident Robert Fisk pulls no punches. “Is there no humiliation left for the Palestinians?” he asks. Soon to be granted the ultimate deal that, in Jared Kushner’s word, “will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.” Is Trump’s son-in-law – “adviser” on the Middle East, real estate developer and US investor – delusional? After three Arab-Israeli wars, tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths and millions of refugees, does Jared Kushner really believe that the Palestinians will settle for cash?… How can he humiliate an entire Arab people by suggesting that their freedom, sovereignty, independence, dignity, justice and nationhood are merely “politicians’ talking points”. “ The Palestinians, he states, will not be bought for a fistful of dollars Saudi, US or EU.
Yes they can, and maybe, they will …Maybe the prospect of a quiet, normal life with jobs for young (important given the depressingly high youth unemployment) and old and brass in pocket, might persuade ordinary Palestinians to accept the political and economic normalisation of what would be occupation-lite.
Meanwhile, there are reports that”moderate” Arab countries are supporting the US’s diktat. The current US-Gulf-israel nexus was a work-in-progress during the Obama years and whilst Donald Trump was but a candidate, and now he has delegated carriage of the “ultimate deal” to his neophyte, demonstratively pro-Israeli son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The plan is to remove the Palestinian problem off the table so that they can concentrate on their real enemy, Shiite Iran.
As for those ostensible “Moderates”, the term is an oxymoron. Saudi and the Gulf emirs are tyrants, autocrats and complicit lick-spittles who’d sell out the Palestinians (and the Israelis too, if they could) if they could conscript American blood and treasure in their perennial Sunni grudge match with Shi’a Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan is wise not to trust this shady bunch. With domestic troubles of his own, and over half of his subjects of Palestinian descent, he has good reason to be careful. Dependent on foreign aid, however, he would be vulnerable to US and Saudi pressure. Pressure is also being exerted on Egypt’s dictator al Sissi. Whilst needful of US and Saudi cash, he is probably wary of stirring up further trouble at home with the economic situation still dire, the Islamist threat in the Sinai unabated, and Gaza presenting a clear and present powder-keg on the eastern border. He has enough stuff to deal with without buying into an anti-Iranian alliance and a deal that the Palestinian will not accept. Neither Trump, Israel nor the Gulf plutocrats are popular on the Arab street.
There is talk of Saudi Arabia pumping money into a resurgent, potentially Singaporean Palestine (they do gild this hallucinatory lily). But this doesn’t gel with reports that the kingdom is in financial straits and has enough trouble at the moment at home, with Yemen, and with an ascendant Iran. Overweening crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, often ventures where angels fear to tread. That he has peremptorily “summoned” King Abdullah and Abbas to Riyadh with no apparent success (much like that farce with the Lebanese prime minister), might suggest that he has less influence over his fellow Arabs than he or his American pals imagine.
Meanwhile, corrupt, coopted and ailing old Abbas and his very unpopular PA, watching the Kushner caravan bumping over the rocky ground of Middle Eastern politics, would perhaps be wise to hang out for a fairer deal – should that deal ever come along.
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed – Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in TheEthnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back – but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”. I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand To burst in twain the Saxon chain, and free our native land!
The Boys of Wexford, RD Royce 1898
Glory-o, Glory-o to her brave men who died For the cause of long down-trodden man. Glory-o to Mount-Leinster’s own darling and pride Dauntless Kelly, the boy from Killane.
Patrick Joseph McCall, 1898
It was on this day in 1798, during the first great Irish rebellion against British dominion, that the Battle of Vinegar Hill took place at Inis Córthaid, now the second-largest town in County Wexford.
The Rebellion of 1798 (Éirí Amach) also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion, was an uprising against British rule in Ireland during the summer of ‘98. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, were the drivers of the rebellion. It was led by Presbyterians irate at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment whilst Catholics became increasingly involved. Plans called for significant French support, which never eventuated. The uprising was poorly organized, uncoordinated, and quickly suppressed by much more powerful British forces. Both sides indulged in bloody reprisals. Between 10,000 to 30,000 souls perished, most of them Irishmen and women of all denominations.
The rebellion raged Ireland-wide, but County Wexford was its heart. Overlooking the town, Vinegar Hill was the site of the largest camp and the headquarters of the Irish rebels who held County Wexford for thirty days against vastly superior English forces; and it was there, after inflicting several defeats upon the insurgents that the English sought to finally destroy the rebel army. Battle raged on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of Enniscorthy with considerable loss of life among both rebels and civilians. It marked a turning point in the rising, being the last attempt by the rebels to hold and defend ground against the British military.
The famous statue in the market square of Enniscorthy shows the doomed Father Murphy, a leader of the ’98, pointing the way to Vinegar Hill for a young volunteer, ‘The Croppy Boy’.
Father Murphy and The Croppy Boy
The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy
History – and indeed, our lives – have a way of echoing across the world and down the years. In 1804, Irish convicts in the far-away penal colony of New South Wales, raised the flag of rebellion against the British soldiery and the colonial masters they served. It was the only convict rising in Australia. Many of those convicts would have been involved in the ‘98, and transported to Botany Bay for their part in it. Their quixotic Intifada was crushed at a place they called Vinegar Hill after the Wexford battle. In 1979, having migrated to Australia, I visited what is believed to be the site of the convicts’ revolt, the Castlebrook lawn cemetery on Windsor Road, Rouse Hill, where a monument commemorating the revolt was dedicated in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year.
The Battle of Vinegar Hill, New South Wales
Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oftimes forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consquences of heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:
Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.
And ponder Seamus Heaney’s poignant Requiem for the Croppies:
The pockets of our greatcoats, full of barley No kitchens on the run, no striking camp We moved quick and sudden in our own country. The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp. A people, hardly marching on the hike We found new tactics happening each day: We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike And stampede cattle into infantry, Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown. Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave. Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave. They buried us without shroud or coffin And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.
Father Murphy and me
I’ve always felt a connection with Vinegar Hill and “the boys of Wexford” who fought there.
In Birmingham, back in the early fifties, we lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. Her family had lived through Ireland’s war of independence and the civil war that followed, and she carried with her the memory of those times when she migrated to Birmingham before the Second World War – after her husband had run off “with another woman” (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). She lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road which were destroyed with considerable loss of life. When her sister died and daddy Paddy had decamped – he’d found a new Love – Mary brought their six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy one by one. I never met nor learned what became of my grandfather. My aunt and mother would say that if Paddy Whelan died, the devil himself would come and tell us. Old Nick never did.
I was born in Mary’s house. She had a friend who had once given birth so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, the National Health Service had kicked in, and they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life-threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, Aunty Mary, three uncles, two aunts, a dog called Monty, named for the famous field Marshall, and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown-ups went down to The Baths). Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; a bathroom with hot water heated in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down in the garden. A big garden it was too, for winter and spring vegetables, snowmen and summer camp-outs.
There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.
In 1956, my uncle took me “across the sea to Ireland” to meet our family – my mother’s, that is. Dad was a proddie from County Tyrone, and we didn’t talk about them. We stayed in the tiny terrace house in Patrick Street where my mother was born in 1928, a crowded place with an outside toilet and a whitewashed back wall that looked out onto windswept fields beyond. Uncle Sonny (Philip, really, but knicknamed for Al Jolson’s famous song), took me to the top of Vinegar Hill, and it’s lonely ruined round tower, used then as a shelter for cattle. We visited the statue of Father John Murphy and the young volunteer, and I learned the story of The Croppy Boy. Today, the term “croppy” is used derogatively to refer to a country bumpkin. Back then, it also referred to the young patriots who answered to the call “at the rising of the moon”. Their name came from their cropped hair – interpreted by some at the time as symbolic of the rejection of the powdered wigs of the gentry and also of the style popularised by French revolutionaries. Sonny took me to The Bloody Bridge on the outskirts of town where Father Murphy was tortured and executed by the English soldiers, the ‘yeos’ (or yeomen). I put my fingers in the groove in the bridge’s stone parapet, said to have been made by the dying priest himself. We walked across the bridge in Wexford Town where so many martyrs perished at the hands of the foe – and, alas, so many innocents were murdered by the rebels. Little matter that the bridge we now trode was the third built there since those fateful days.
History was alive, and it was black and white. People remembered, as if it was yesterday, how Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swathe through Catholic Ireland and massacred the innocents of Wexford town. It was said that people hung Cromwell’s picture upside down in their living rooms, and turned his face to the wall for good measure. Relatives would recount how the Black and Tans, the English paramilitaries raised to terrorise the populace, held their bayonets to women’s throats demanding “where’s your husband?”…or father…or son…Even the English teachers at my English grammar school would remark that the ‘Tans were war veterans who’d survived carnage of the Western Front and wanted more.
In the summer of 1969 my brother and I and an old chum spent several weeks in an Enniscorthy that looked and felt felt like it had not changed since Aunty Mary’s day – so well portrayed in the academy award nominated film Brooklyn. Dressed as we were in hippie garb and sporting long locks, we cut incongruous figures in the pubs and at the local hop, and were so unsuccessful hitchhiking around the county that we walked many a long Irish mile. We hiked to Killane, Sean Kelly’s country, and inspired by the song, climbed upwards though heath and hedge to the top of Mount Leinster. We stayed at 13 Patrick Street, and spent a lot of time sitting up on Vinegar Hill, beneath its round tower, looking down on the River Slaney and the town beyond. My brother was a keen photographer, and he took the following pictures:
The Croppy Boy 1969
Enniscorthy from atop Vinegar Hill August 1969
Enniscorthy Sunset August 1969
Fast forward into another century, and I was “on the Holy Ground once more”. Adèle and I attended the wedding of an old pal and cosmic twin (born on the same day as me at about the same time, in English town beginning with B) we were the only Brits in a seminar at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Back then, SOAS was known to many Arabs as the school of spies, a status I was reminded of by the owner of our hotel when we all visited Damascus in 2006. But I digress. The wedding was held at an old pub in right in the heart of Ireland, and in getting there, we did a whistle-stop tour of the south, including Enniscorthy, Wexford and Ross, the heartland of the ‘98 rebellion. When I first visited Enniscorthy, you could lie down in the middle of the Main Street and not be disturbed by traffic. This time, you could still lie down in th middle of Main Street – we were stuck in a traffic jam as we wound up the hill past Saint Aiden’s Cathedral to Patrick Street, which was no longer on the edge of town. The old house was still standing, as the song goes. Clean and crisp and pebble-dashed. As we stood outside number thirteen, a young goth girl in a multicoloured hoodie with tattoos and piercings opened the door. I told her how my mother and her brothers and sisters were born in this very house a long, long time ago, and that we’d come all the way from Australia to see it. “You don’t say!” she said.
13 Patrick Street, August 2004
Vinegar Hill August 2004
I was best man at that wedding, and in a speech largely devoted to the groom and our mutual, lifelong appreciation of Bob Dylan, I was able to relate to guests young and old tales of my Irish childhood, taking us all “down the foggy ruins of time”, and sang extracts from songs I actually did learn at my mothers knee.
When I was little, mother Mary would march us up and down the parlour as she sang Enniscorthy’s songs of rebellion: Kelly the Boy From Killane, Boulavogue, and the eponymous Boys of Wexford. We were told that such songs were banned in Britain, and that we must never sing them in public. There’s nothing so tempting as forbidden fruit. A relative brought us over Irish Songs of Freedom, sung in a sweet tenor by Willie Brady – a daring deed indeed, listening to it was, and perhaps my first act of rebellion. We know now that this was all a cod. The Clancy Brothers were singing those rebel songs to packed houses the length and breadth of the British Isles and North America. And today, of course, you lose count of the collections and anthologies of Irish songs of freedom, rebellion or resistance, sung with vim, vigour, and nostalgic gusto from the Clancy Brothers and Dubliners back in the day to Sinead O’Connor and Celtic Woman.
In true men, like you men – songs of ‘98
So, on this, the two hundredth and twentieth anniversary of Vinegar Hill, let us remember the patriot men with a few of those old songs.
At Vinegar Hill o’er the pleasant Slaney Our heroes vainly stood back to back And the yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy And burnt his body upon the rack God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy And open heaven to all your men The cause that called you may call tomorrow In another fight for the green again
Boulavogue Patrick Joseph McCall 1898
The song commemorates local parish priest Father John Murphy, he of the statue in he market place, who led his parishioners into battle in Wexford. Father Murphy and the other rebel leaders were captured and executed. He was hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar, and his head placed on a spike as a warning to other rebels.
Enniscorthy is in flames and old Wexford is won And tomorrow the barrow will cross On the hill o’er the town we have planted a gun That will batter the gateway to Ross All the Forth men and Bargy men will march o’er the heath With brave Harvey to lead in the van But the foremost of all in the grim gap of death Will be Kelly, the boy from Killane
Patrick Joseph McCall 1898
Sean Kelly was one of the leaders of the ‘98, celebrated for his role in then Battle of Ross, where he was wounded. After the fall of Wexford on 21 June, he was dragged from his sick bed, tried and sentenced to death and hanged on Wexford Bridge along with seven other rebel leaders. His body was then decapitated, the trunk thrown into the River Slaney and the head kicked through the streets before being set on display on a spike as a warning to others…Bad times for brave men.
Some on the shores of distant lands Their weary hearts have laid, And by the stranger’s heedless hands Their lonely graves were made; But though their clay be far away, Beyond the Atlantic foam, In true men, like you, men, Their spirit’s still at home.
Who Fears to Speak of ‘98, John Kells Ingram 1843
Never in recent memory have so many words have been printed about so little. at least not since The Australian’s last holy war.
Australia’s national broadsheet (that is, published nationally rather than in a particular state) The Australian, owned by expatriate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is indulging in a mighty bout of shadow boxing on the subject of whether or not western civilization is or isn’t in decline in our antipodean Elysium. Shadow boxing in the sense that it preaches largely to the converted on a subject that is close to the heart of its opinionistas, and of little consequence to the public at large. Its adversary is that will ‘o the wisp otherwise know as the ‘green-left’ that has set up a virtual red commune in the our universities and the soviet that is our national broadcaster.
Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilization aimed at educating a new generation of potential movers and shakers in the cultural foundations of our society. This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage.
Cultural commentator Peter Craven writes: “It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilization/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country”. And it is indeed a peculiar penchant of our own predominantly white, middle aged, Anglo-Celtic cultural warriors. Nothing, it seems, stirs their blood more than an argument about academic license or press freedom if this is not favourably disposed to their side. One is tempted to ask what would these champions of “political incorrectness” do without academia and the ABC to rail against; although it might be observed that one person’s political correctness is another person’s political incorrectness.
Now, many of us share reservations about sources of university funding that may or may not have a particular political purpose, such as those directed at establishing Confucius institutes and such like, supported by Chinese government front organisations, and cash provided to the likes of the ANU’s Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies by Middle East autocracies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Somehow, soft power exercised through football stadiums and other bread and circuses are preferable to surreptitiously propagating favourable opinion, research, and influence in our institutions of higher learning.
In a university like the ANU, recognized globally as one of Australia’s top three universities (with Sydney and Melbourne), a course in the great foundational texts of Western civilization would seem to be desirable. It would have been modeled on the Great Books courses offered as core curricula at American institutions like Columbia and Chicago. None of these courses are branded as disciplines in “Western civilization’’, this is the basis for the works studied, representing the canon of Western literature and thought.
Given the challenges facing us in an era disrupted by a rank populism that owes little to the Enlightenment – rather a return to the Dark Ages – it would seem all the more desirable for a great Australian institution like the ANU to focus on texts that have contributed to Western civilization.
And there is indeed nothing wrong with a university course dedicated to western civilization provided it included the bad bits as well as the “hope and glorious”, like the dark side of Empire, Ireland, Australia, and the MidEast, the Wars Of Religion, and such. And if it endeavoured to avoid bias and prejudice, and control by the Centre for Independent Studies. One would hope that the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies would do likewise and resist the atavistic urging of its autocratic and anachronistic donors (we are assured that all is indeed above board). But it’s hard to dismiss the logic of that old German idiom Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing – His song I sing who gives me bread.
Much of the opposition to the proposed course by left-wing academics, students and commentators is inspired by its sponsors. Those old culture war-horses, former Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbot get people thinking the course will be an Anglo-Christian, Rule Britannia whitewash, and a mirror of the old Oxbridge PPE that has spawned much of Britain’s Tory elite. To many, these two and those who think like them, are in thrall to our English heritage as a conquering Anglo-Celtic tribe and wish we were back in the 1950s when the Christian God was in his heaven, women were in the kitchen, blacks were in their place, and our White Australia Policy kept out all the rest.
The Abbott and Howard vision would no doubt be an Anglo-centric one. They seek a panegyric of Imperial nostalgia and a narrative that reflects their world view. I can’t quite see these old culture warriors and many Young Liberals for that matter (an incongruous, anachronistic cabal of reactionaries if ever there was one) getting off on Greek and Roman poetry and philosophy (Socrates and Sappho would not pass moral muster), Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, and the Russian and French literary canon. There’s much more to Western Civilization than Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible. Recall what Old Mahatma Gandhi said when asked about western civilization. He thought it might be a good idea, and worth giving it a try.
Much of the commentary concerning the Ramsay Centre has been secreted behind News Limited’s pay-wall, Which, by default, preaches to the conservatism converted. So I have taken the liberty to republish below some of the more intriguing coverage. I begin, however, an amusing overview from Crikey, followed by commentaries by journalist and academic Peter van Onselen, whom many on the right would probably regards as a communist mole and class traitor like Malcolm Fraser, and The Australian’s resident aynrandista and the counter-revolution’s Madame Defarge, Janet Albrechtsen. I present more cogent opinion pieces by sociologist John Carrroll, and the ever-readable and reasonable Peter Craven, whilst American pundit Daniel Pipes provides an international perspective on the wider “war of civilization” to ground the puny polemics of our parochial partisans. Western civilization is indeed under threat at the moment, and it certainly needs defending – from enemies far more dogmatic, determined and dangerous than the reds under our Murdoch myrmidons’ beds.
I’m with Craven when he writes: “It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children. None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective”. And I’m still with him when he concludes “We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run”.
This story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. But what are those exactly?
There’s no outlet in the country that’s dedicated quite as much energy to the latest culture war battle than The Australian. Last week, Australian National University announced it was dropping a controversial degree in Western civilisation, funded by the Ramsay Centre. The Oz has been closely following developments, especially since Ramsay Centre director and former PM Tony Abbott wrote about the centre being “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it” in Quadrant in April.
The story has all the makings of a classic Australian culture war campaign. Some of the coverage already shows signs of being a full Holy War. If it does, here’s what we can expect over the coming weeks:
There has already been a small flurry of “exclusive” news stories from national education correspondent Rebecca Urban over the past few days, with headlines including “Uni blasted for double standards”, “ANU reaps mid-east millions”, and “Fury as uni dumps study of the West“.
If past campaigns are anything to go by, you can expect more stories up the front of the paper about the decision to close the centre, the people involved, and reactions from the their usual rent-a-quote sources. The IPA’s Bella d’Abrera has been quoted today, and Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s comments to Sky News have also made the cut. Abbott was quoted yesterday. In fact, Liberal politicians are always a good source for quotes — they’ve provided content for one of the news stories in today’s paper.
Urban has taken the lead on the “news” coverage (as she did with the Holy War on Roz Ward and Safe Schools), but other reporters will also be on the case. Today, Andrew Clennell, Samantha Hutchinson and Rachel Baxendale all have bylines on stories.
A key feature of any Australian Holy War is quantity. Today, for example, there are five full pieces in the print edition, including two comment articles. Expect this to continue, with roughly daily news stories, entries in Cut and Paste, commentary pieces from staff and external writers, editorials, and letters to the editor. As the “story” develops, expect increasingly trivial updates — the goal is to keep the story alive.
In order to keep the content coming, any social media posts, speeches and public appearances of anyone remotely relevant will be monitored, and their histories examined. Those under the radar will include Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, who announced the decision to drop the course. No target is ever too qualified or too well-respected to be above attack, so don’t expect his Nobel Prize or academic pedigree to be off limits. ANU’s history department head Frank Bongiorno, quoted in yesterday’s story by Rebecca Urban, could also be under suveillance, as could officials from the National Tertiary Education Union, especially branch president Matt King. His letter to ANU about the course after Abbott’s article was published was quoted in Urban’s piece about the uni withdrawing from the deal, and was cited by Ramsay Centre chairman John Howard as a reason for the deal falling through.
Call in the opinion attack dogs
Since June 2, when the paper printed news of the degree being dumped, there’s already been one editorial, two “Last Post” letters columns, and op-eds from foreign editor Greg Sheridan, Swinburne University of Technology’s John Fitzgerald, and higher education editor Tim Dodd. And before that, they had Janet Albrechtsen, Jennifer Oriel, former deputy PM John Anderson, and education minister Simon Birmingham writing about the degree. Sheridan is back today, and political editor Dennis Shanahan also had a piece on it.
Keep an eye out for more on this topic from Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson, Henry Ergas and Terry McCrann.
How many words do you think The Australian will dedicate to this Holy War? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know
There’s an ugly side but it does not diminish Western civilisation
Peter Craven, The Australian, June’s 16th 2018
The Western civilisation that brought us Adolf Hitler also brought us Gustave Mahler
It’s hard to imagine the heat of the Western civilisation/Ramsay Centre debate being generated in the way it has been anywhere but in this country. Someone wants to leave a lot of money to establish courses at the Australian National University that trace the glories of what we have inherited from, say, Homer and Herodotus, Plato and the Psalms to wherever you want to stop: Wittgenstein and Proust, perhaps. The Ramsay Centre appointed a board that included John Howard and Kim Beazley.
Yes, but it also includes Tony Abbott, who writes an article in Quadrant suggesting the course must be for Western civilisation and the people who teach it should be selected to further this bias. And, lo and behold, this scares the horses, or rather the academics who are fearful of being Eurocentric, who want to interrogate the horrors of postcolonialism and generally back away from cultural triumphalism.
This, in turn, affects the Nobel prize-winning vice-chancellor of ANU, Brian Schmidt, the physicist, and he has to back off, so the pot of gold falls from the hands of the university. Sydney University is also chary but no doubt there will be negotiations with others.
It’s all been a bit mad, the suggestion that any reverence for Western civilization implies an endorsement of all the crimes done in its name, or the opposite notion, that it requires blatant boosting and barracking in a world of dangerous futile left-wing loons who do nothing but repudiate our heritage and deprive our children.
None of which is to deny elements of truth in both bits of cartoon invective. But, look, an investment of money in teaching the history and substance of our art and thought and literature can only be a good thing, even if we all know what Gandhi meant when he said of Western civilisation that he thought it was worth a try. Just as we all know the deep truth of what that great German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin meant when he said that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism.
We should never forget that Greece executed Socrates and Rome executed Christ. That our own English language civilisation that produced Shakespeare was also, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a period when people burned each other at the stake for their religious opinions. A monarchist like Abbott would not fail to recall, in the lead-up to the English Civil War that followed, how Oliver Cromwell, said of Charles I: “I will cut off his head with the crown on it.” And did.
That great epic poem, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, came from that period of horror and so did what is probably the most formidable work of political philosophy in our language, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: Hobbes said life was nasty, brutish and short, and argued that violence should be the prerogative of the state.
The regicide and the absolutist would each have their place in a Western civilisation course. And why not? It was Guy Rundle recently in The Saturday Paper who said that literature courses these days were likely to exclude Milton even though all the writers on them would have read him.
So perhaps we need to push our own tradition a bit. None of which is to deny the argument that we already have courses on Western civilisation: they’re taught — sometimes badly, sometimes well, but abidingly — by the arts faculties of our universities.
But bear in mind that one of the competing orthodoxies in the teaching of literature when I was growing up — and one that caused a civil war in the Sydney University English department — derived from FR Leavis of Cambridge, and consisted of saying that much of the canon was not up to scratch. And years later when Harold Bloom — in reaction against relativism and deconstruction — wrote The Western Canon, he was not disputing the right to discriminate. He once said of that great flawed poet Ezra Pound —— who had referred to the Old Testament as “black evil” — “Call that a Western mind!”
We all have Western minds, alas, black, white and wishy washy. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating it, even though this is something that has traditionally been done rather more in America because the Americans are not afraid of a delicatessen approach to this subject. Think of the Great Books course of the University of Chicago, or the comparable course at Columbia. The latter was undertaken, in later middle age, by David Denby, then New Yorker film critic, and he wrote a book about what it was actually like to encounter such figures as Plato or Machiavelli who may be only known even to educated people by surmise and reputation or as archaic memories from adolescence.
One difficulty with Great Book courses, however, is that they require the teaching of people from different disciplines who, by necessity, see the world from different angles. If the lectures on Plato, say, were given by Raimond Gaita (whose own philosophical work is in the Platonist tradition) this would be very different from the way Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, the Monash classicist who now teaches drama, would teach the Electra of Sophocles.
Still, these problems would be surmountable, nor would it be impossible to teach a course like this while admitting that the Western civilisation that brought us Mozart and Mahler also brought us the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Our Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition has a very strong emphasis on self-scrutiny: “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton), as Socrates said. And this, inevitably, in the Hebraic and Christian traditions involves self-reproach. Think of the self-massacring majesty of the Psalms. Think of those plangent words of the Anglican confession that can stir any believing or unbelieving soul: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
What is great in our civilisation went along with plenty of frailty, plenty of fault. And, as someone who is wheeled out to talk about how much the great moments of the Christian calendar underlie our culture, I have always tried to emphasise the high and mighty parallels in Eastern religion and the way a work like the Bhagavad Gita enriches our sense of our own scripture — as TS Eliot knew. A reverence for our tradition will hardly diminish our sense of the great T’ang poets Pound translated or the classical art of China so beloved of Pierre Ryckmans. Just as we might as well acknowledge that the combination of totalitarianism and capitalism that characterises contemporary China is something we gave them, like the Opium Wars.
We should not be afraid of being cultural conservatives, though I remember the sorrow on the face of Bloom, the one time I met him, when I got him to admit that this is what we were. But that kind of conservatism has nothing to do with political boosterism.
It’s also worth remembering that some fraction of people I fought with during the theory wars could recognise a good writer — a Gerald Murnane or a Helen Garner — when they saw them.
But we are too afraid of words. I wonder if that conservative John Howard is haunted at times like these by the time when, as opposition leader, he was given a copy of War and Peace by Barry Jones. “Why, Barry?” “Because, John, if you ever become PM you’ll be better for having read it.”
We’re all better for reading these things. They civilise us. Take the Ramsay money and run.
Ramsay Centre has Tony Abbott to blame for ANU’s rejection
Peter van Onselen, The Australian, 9th June 018
The first rule of trying to seal a deal is to give the other party an excuse to say yes, not an excuse to say no. Which brings us to the Australian National University’s decision to reject the Ramsay Centre-sponsored course on Western civilisation.
The excuse to say yes was the money, plain and simple. The centre was offering millions of dollars and, yes, there was internal opposition at ANU — which, according to the latest world university rankings released this week, has maintained its status as Australia’s No 1 university.
But the excuse for vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt to say yes was compelling — in an era when funding for higher education isn’t what it once was, here was a chance to lock in long-term funding for a course Schmidt had some sympathy for. As do I. When the Ramsay Centre was announced I contacted its chairman, John Howard, to voice my support. I’ve spent my working lifetime as an academic promoting democratic principles derived from Western civilisation. Many of my writings on this page have done the same, just as I equally have condemned dictatorships and totalitarian regimes that don’t ascribe to Western democratic values.
Then, as if on cue, entered Tony Abbott, who couldn’t help but write an opinion piece for Quadrant magazine. In the piece he cited the Ramsay Centre’s unofficial design principle to not lose its philosophical direction: “Every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.” As though Western civilisation is owned by one side of this crude ideological divide. He went on to claim the centre would have a say over curriculum design and academic appointments when giving money to universities, which infuriated some academics (who still believe in academic independence) and many left-wing ideologues within the student and staff unions on campus at ANU.
Yes, they already were working behind the scenes to scuttle a deal between Australia’s best university — which also houses our only world top 10 humanities division — and the Ramsay Centre. But, courtesy of Abbott, the thing you never want to inject into the deal-making moment happened.
ANU had an excuse to say no.
There is no escaping the reality that, by design or by accident, Abbott became a martyr rather than a rational conservative seeking to lock down a deal to bring new ideas and potential cultural change to an important institution. He handed left-wing critics the ammunition they needed.
It’s not conservative to storm a defensive line you cannot defeat in one blaze of glory. True conservatives know that Western civilisation was built across thousands of years. Its incremental advance is why it has been so successful. Equally, any conservative with a modicum of strategic sense knows that getting a foot in the door from which incremental cultural and political change can happen is far more effective than blowing up a deal simply to get a few cheap headlines; headlines that preach only to the converted anyway.
I’ve worked in the Australian university sector for nearly 20 years, from PhD student to professor, across five institutions. I can tell you that the CV tag line of having once worked for Abbott is no asset.
The broad point that the so-called left (the labelling is a little crude) is dominant in the sector is absolutely true, although there are many other moving parts that don’t fit that crude classification in big universities. And, yes, at a superficial level there appears to be hypocrisy — universities tolerate taking money from non-democracies to fund centres yet the ANU unions kicked up a fuss about the Ramsay partnership.
But Abbott was wrong — strategically and intellectually — to seek to challenge academic independence, to claim his board could wield influence beyond the mandate formally discussed in the negotiations. It took the goodwill out of the discussions to get the deal done that the unions weren’t even part of. By gloating too early about the influence Abbott hoped his board would have, he gave his enemies the excuse they needed to thwart the deal. It was dumb. Of course there’s soft power handing out money but nobody wants that unsaid power to be explicitly detailed in a way that violates academic rules.
I don’t like Australian universities taking money from non-democracies, especially anyone tied to tyrannical non-democracies (which is most of them). And while I can see the failures of elements of Western civilisation, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is an overwhelming success story in the annals of time, valuable to be taught over and above other histories.
In fact, a core ingredient of Western civilisation, robustly built organically from the 1700s on, is academic independence. Listening to critics of ANU’s decision not to go ahead with the partnership citing other worrying funding streams to higher institutions is as lowbrow as it is weak. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Fix such failures rather than build on them by letting what, according to the Quadrant article, is essentially a think tank violate academic standards and independence. That is no solution to existing failures. And even if that’s your clandestine ideological goal, keep it clandestine, don’t put it in a polemic publication before the deal has been inked.
The reason the left has the influence it does within some universities is because it plays by the rules, using the system to its advantage. That is what it has done by jumping on Abbott’s article — more fool him for giving it the ammunition. Conservatives are supposed to be better at using the rules to their advantage. A degree on the history of Western civilisation would show how they generally have been.
The idea that some other lesser institution may pick up the deal is no substitute. They haven’t a vice-chancellor such as Nobel laureate Schmidt, who can walk into any room (even at our best uni) and command the cultural discussion. He was a supporter until the deal was wrecked. It took the strategic genius of a prime minister who managed to blast himself out of office less than two years after winning a thumping victory, and six months after a partyroom warning, to unintentionally disempower Australia’s most formidable and awarded VC.
The loud critics of ANU’s decision completely miss the point. Bemoan the outcome by all means, but reflect on the process failures that led to the Pyrrhic victory (note the classical reference) of martyrdom over getting this centre established at ANU.
I see the suggestion floating around now is that the Ramsay money instead could go to a new liberal arts college because Australia’s public universities are too far gone. How ridiculous.
First up, only a fraction of the money businessman Paul Ramsay bequeathed is specifically allocated for this venture. There is nowhere near adequate funding to properly set up such an institution.
Second, it likely would lack credibility anyway and attract only students who already believe in the virtues of Western civilisation, when surely a key goal is to teach others about such things.
Finally, giving up on our university sector is the kind of defeatism I don’t associate with Western civilisation or conservatism.
Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University.
Disdain for the best of the west
John Carroll, The Australian, June 9th 2018
The Australian National University has just backed off hosting a course on Western civilisation on the grounds of it being somehow in conflict with what the university stands for. What does it stand for, we might ask.
One further step in the demoralisation of the academy has just taken place, care of ANU senior management caving in to a minority of noisy radical students, one which, while small in itself, can count on background support from most of the academic staff in the humanities. There is a long history behind how we, as a society, have let this come to pass. At issue is what has transpired in the humanities and social sciences, not in the rest of the university.
The Western university as we know it today was founded in the Middle Ages as a Christian institution. It was predicated on unquestioned and unifying faith. Within the faith, its central task was theological, to explain the works of God to man and to train minds for that interpretative work. The university was transformed by the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment, into a humanist institution. In this, its second phase, culture replaced God as the transcendental force that welded the unifying vision. We are now well into a third phase in which the university has a confused idea of itself, and inasmuch as it has direction, it is to be found in pockets still under the influence of the ghosts of the old beliefs.
This history is best clarified by a closer look at the humanist era. The humanist university drew its lifeblood from three related ideals. One was aristocratic, that of the gentleman, a character ideal. The assumption was that the good society depends on a social hierarchy led by a cultivated elite, one with a strong sense of civic duty. That elite was defined by the character of its individuals.
The second ideal was that of “civilisation”, which was imagined as the pinnacle of human achievement. It depends on the most intellectually and imaginatively gifted, in trained application, producing great works. Civilisation has created the gothic cathedral and the steam engine, Hamlet and the Sistine ceiling, Newton’s laws of motion, graceful town planning, hygiene, democracy and codified law. The works of civilisation show humans at their highest, transcending mundane everyday life; making of themselves something immortal and godlike; and creating both powerful tools for the conquest of necessity and objects of supreme and edifying beauty.
A fresco featuring Plato, Arisotle and The School of Athens in the Vatican.
The third ideal was a utilitarian one, that culture and knowledge are useful. In Matthew Arnold’s formulation, deriving from Socrates, knowledge will make a person better and happier. Ignorance is the source of misery and evil. Humans who have knowledge will find it more difficult — in the extreme version, impossible — to do ill. They will be more rational about their lives and therefore make them more pleasurable and fulfilling. These qualities applied to society will result in it, too, being reformed and improved.
This humanist optimism had gone by the end of World War I, as German sociologist Max Weber reflected in a 1918 lecture titled “Knowledge as a Vocation”. Weber’s question was whether the university is possible in a godless and prophetless time, a time in which the traditional ultimate values had lapsed and no new ones had appeared. Weber observed that many were looking to the university to provide the meaning that had gone out of a disenchanted world. However, knowledge cannot provide meaning in the ultimate sense of answering Tolstoy’s questions: “What should we do and how shall we live?” Nor, according to Weber, should it try. Prophecy does not belong in the lecture halls.
What then remains? Weber finds three functions for the university: the advancement of knowledge, the teaching of methods of thinking, and the imposing on students of a clarity and consistency of thought within the framework of already given ultimate values. At this point, Weber’s defence of the university collapses in unacknowledged contradiction. The one function that preoccupies him is the third, but it depends on already given ultimate values, the lack of which is the problem that stimulated his lecture in the first place.
Weber concludes by defending the virtue of intellectual integrity, founded on the individual teacher’s own conscience. The implication is that rigorously disciplined scholars dedicated to their own branches of knowledge will communicate enough moral authority to their students to fill the metaphysical void.
Behind this flattering absurdity, Weber has described the modern university: where there is authority, it is in individuals obeying their own consciences, usually in isolation, an odd dispersion of one-person sects to be found sprinkled thinly through an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
In the US, there were examples of the survival of the old education, especially in the liberal arts colleges, often centring on courses teaching the great books of Western culture. Chicago and Columbia were notable. The Ramsay initiative at the ANU sought to revive this noble tradition.
In the 20th-century wake of the humanist university, there was one quite different strategy: to create a politically active institution. In the ashes of the last “idea” grew the university as training camp for political and social reformers. Here the university again followed the church, in compensating for a lack of belief in itself with political activism. Weber knew the phenomenon in the German universities of the 1890s. It reappeared in the 1930s with the sacking of Jewish professors, the burning of books and Heidegger’s rectorial address at Freiburg in which the eminent philosopher urged commitment to Hitler.
In the 30s it also appeared in other countries, England for instance, where a Marxist socialism became the fashion among intellectuals. The political motivation returned in the 60s and has continued ever since, this time pioneered by leftist students demanding that radical social reform replace learning as the main activity of the university.
Activism was energised by a displacement of religious zeal into politics. With the death of God and the marginalisation of the churches, salvation came to be sought in social crusades and highly charged moral causes, loosely guided by Marxist ideology. One might have imagined that the main historical lesson of the 20th century would provide a cautionary tale, that redemptive politics — whether communist or fascist — leads not to utopia but to a human wasteland strewn with a hundred million corpses. The universities, free from any constraining reality principle, were blind to this lesson.
The politicisation of the university continues unabated. For instance, until a decade or so ago, courses teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen remained common. Today, if the creator of the classic novel is to be found in any English literature department, it will probably be because of her picture of colonialism — in reality, so trivial amid the magnificence of her work as needing a microscope to find.
The demoralisation of the humanist university was compounded by a profound attack launched by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s, in a castigation of intellectuals, and indeed of the entire Western ascetic tradition of scholars and priests. Sorel, Spengler, Benda, Rieff, Allan Bloom and other later critics of intellectuals have been much under his influence, although their work is pale by comparison. Weber’s 1918 lecture is troubled precisely because it accepts Nietzsche’s case and cannot get around it.
Nietzsche’s argument contrasts instinct and knowledge. The history of civilisation is the history of increasing repression, of steadily proliferating checks on the instincts. This development is against nature. Healthy, strong, admirable human individuals are decisive, they see things clearly and can act on what they see — their instincts are good, and they obey them.
The high level of repression concomitant with civilisation produces people, by contrast, whose passions are tepid, who dither, who are ineffectual and who take to moralising in compensation for their inability to decide and to act. Hamlet is the literary exemplar. He lost the instinctive sense of what is good and bad, what is worth doing and what is not, and lived under the delusion that he could reason himself into action. It follows that the celebration of knowledge, epitomised in the philosopher and the university, is not a mark of progress, not the banner under which human life will be made better and happier.
In effect, Nietzsche makes two points. One is about the human types who pursue knowledge; the other about the function of knowledge itself. The first point is that it is the worst people who become intellectuals, types who are devious, inhibited and rancorous. Not only is repressed emotion sublimated into thinking but the overcharged intellectual faculty is then commandeered to manufacture tortuous justifications of bad motives as good ones, of bad acts as reasonable ones.
The recent politicisation of language in the universities exemplifies this. In diametric opposition to the principle of free speech, students are discouraged from saying what they think lest they transgress approved usage and risk being damned as a “racist” or whatever the current target for righteous indignation. It is as if they are being trained in political inhibition.
Nietzsche’s second point is that knowledge has helped us become more comfortable, not better or happier. The best societies have strong cultures. Culture is rooted in myth, not knowledge. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is a sure sign that the sacred myths have lost their authority. In particular, academic history is an abstract endeavour and only appears once real ties to the past have withered — family ties, tribal ties and communal ties. Our own Anzac Day illustrates this in its revitalised mythic force.
The last part of the argument is that the increasing repression of the active individual, combined with the canonisation of knowledge, has killed God. There are no transcendental powers left in a rational world. Where comfort is the highest value, it is the stomach, not the sacred, that rules. However, without belief in a higher order of some kind, human life becomes meaningless, losing purpose and direction.
Weber’s defence of the university is against modern culture as interpreted by Nietzsche. The task of the university is not to restore the spirit or revive the heart. In any case, Weber is too pessimistic to believe in that possibility. His modest claim is that the university allows specialist disciplines and that they have a virtue as long as their practitioners obey their ethos, that of intellectual integrity.
We know, early in the 21st century, that Weber’s uncertain defence of the university does not work — as a conglomerate of specialist disciplines vaguely unified at the individual level by an ethic of intellectual integrity.
Nor is a polytechnic a university, and, in any case, it only suits the natural sciences and perhaps such in-between studies as business and the various professions. A university draws its sustenance from the ultimate questions about the human condition, and therefore it centres on the humanities (including the social sciences). It always has.
The university requires a unifying and guiding vision. Experience in the past century proves that, without such a vision, it becomes demoralised, and those teachers who are not completely listless in their vocations tend to become rancorous, teaching against the authorities and truths of the inherited culture in what they themselves often celebrate as a “critical” or “radical” manner. This is not criticism in the sense of open-minded scrutiny of a text in order to gain access to some truth.
A university depends on collective belief in universals of goodness, beauty and truth — and that they carry with them some kind of transcendental value. When that belief fails, all that remains is to tear down and to shock — what the contemporary academy has unselfconsciously legitimised as “deconstruction”. The high priest of modernism, Marcel Duchamp, entered a urinal in an art exhibition in New York in 1917. His intention was to shock but also, more seriously, to challenge that there are no standards left by which to say that my porcelain urinal is less beautiful, good or true than any of the works of the old masters. Duchamp has carried the day, both in contemporary art and in university arts faculties.
A further cost of the collapse of confident belief in the university has been the failure of academics in the past two decades to resist bureaucratisation, to their own further detriment. Fifty-five per cent of those employed in Australian universities today are administrators. This is not the place to go into what they all do, or don’t do, in an institution devoted to teaching and research. Academics have joked, borrowing from Yes Minister, that the perfect university for the new order of management is one in which there are no academics and no students. Indeed, there is little chance that these vast structures of senior and middle management, with rare exceptions, will have any sense of the higher purpose of the institution they run. Recent events at the ANU are, given this context, unsurprising.
The humanist university has run down. The Christian university, founded in medieval form, is too culturally alien to the contemporary West to be revived. The church, the one institution that could replace the university as the master teacher of eternal truths, is in a state of hopeless disrepair. Yet the university is here to stay, for a bureaucratically organised society will, of its nature, maintain an educational hierarchy, with the universities at the pinnacle.
Nietzsche saw that cultural demolition will start with ascetic individuals, ones subject to high levels of instinctual repression, complexity of psychological disposition, given to thinking, those very individuals to fill the ranks of the priesthood, the academy and the caste of artists, writers and musicians. When they begin to lose their faith, they turn on the gods that have failed them.
It is commonplace that the most virulent critics of the pope and the Church of Rome are priests with faltering belief or laity in the process of defection. There is a sense of betrayal, a rage against the sacred walls that have crumbled, against the past authorities that still roam around uneasily in the individual unconscious but no longer command.
And “rage” is not an overstatement. George Orwell lamented towards the end of World War II that the whole left intelligentsia in Britain had been secretly pleased whenever the Germans won a battle. Orwell called himself a socialist at the time, and while he no doubt exaggerated, the visceral intensity and irrationality of national self-hatred is exemplified here — preferring Hitler to your own people. There is very little left at any level in the universities with the spine to resist this kind of cultural self-loathing.
The rage against a culture that has lost authority has percolated more and more widely through left-green political culture, if usually in more mellow tones. Generations of students in schools and universities have now been subjected to Marxist ideology, teaching them about the West’s capitalist exploitation of other peoples, of its own minorities and of the disadvantaged in general. That the West is evil has become the default reading for much of the tertiary-educated upper middle class. Yet only a small, noisy minority are rancorous. For most, a vague reflex view of the world has come to prevail, ignorantly held and often naive, while occasionally grounded in genuine empathy for those who are less well-off.
It is, of course, true that Western history has its negative episodes, but which society or civilisation hasn’t? Realist comparisons show the modern West, especially since 1945, in a very favourable light in terms of quality of life, fairness and respect for universal human rights.
The hatred of Western civilisation that has arisen in the cultural elites draws on one further motivational strand: power envy.
The very success of the West, in creating the most prosperous, the most powerful and the most just society the world has ever known, creates its own irritant. Those who are unhappy with their lives, insecure in their identities and anxious about their future may come to resent the extraordinary privilege, comfort and opportunity into which they have been born. Their society is successful and powerful; they are not.
What follows is identification with the “wretched of the earth”, those victims who are helplessly disadvantaged. This first appeared among radical university students in the 1960s, in a ludicrous inversion of the reality that they were a uniquely privileged generation of spoiled rich kids.
University rancour has commonly surfaced in a condescending disparagement of ordinary people and popular culture — for cheap taste, crass materialism, jingoism, xenophobia and syrupy values. The reality is that Western popular culture, by contrast, has retained a healthy belief in universal moral laws, in the value of the beautiful and in the ultimate significance of truth.
Power envy is linked with a paranoid reflex, which holds that if I can destroy what has power and persecutes me, then I myself can gain that power. Hence the radical hostility to the main power on our side, the US, and, increasingly on the left, to Israel — as the one prosperous, democratic and successful country amid the wretched stagnation of most of the Middle East.
Where to now? Central to any viable idea of the university, whether Christian, humanist or other, is a retelling of the human story as a kind of epic, with gravity and dignity, following the diverse ways it plays out its fateful tragedies. This requires interpretations of the story that reveal that life is more than an egoistic performance governed by power struggles.
All humans want answers to the big questions of where they come from, what they should do with their lives in order to make sense of them and what happens when they die. Deep engagement with the best literature, art, music and philosophy of our own Western culture is fundamental. Today’s students crave just this sort of education.
Here is the aim of the Ramsay Centre for western Civilisation, which will almost certainly have to set up its own independent institution if it is to prosper.
It is vitally important for the country that it succeeds.
John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University. johncarrollsociologist.wordpress.com
How to stop the culture wars: unite on the kernel of liberty
Janet Albrechtsen.The Australian, June 9th 2018
Janet Albrechtsen has been labelled Australia’s answer to Ayn Rand, who famously said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Former Labor leader Mark Latham once controversially said she was “a skanky ho who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party” in parliament. Crikey dubbed her a “right-wing rage machine”. But The Australian’s “most talked about columnist” is adored by conservatives as well as her editors.
The body count from the killing fields of the Australian culture wars keeps piling up. And don’t imagine the battles are esoteric disagreements among elites. The battles over how free we are in a liberal society seep into every corner of the country, from a dour scientist at a north Queensland university to a glamorous morning television host beamed into Australian living rooms.
Here’s a tally from this week alone. The Australian National University recoiled in response to objections from a few unionists, pulling out of an unprecedented deal with the Ramsay Centre to provide students with generous scholarships and a new course in Western civilisation. The editor of literary journal Meanjin, Jonathan Green, wrote a long, grovelling apology for his white privilege because the latest cover wrongly chose to promote #MeToo feminism over indigenous people in the Balkanised world of identity politics. Television personality Sonia Kruger will have to answer to a government bureaucracy because she expressed a view about Muslim immigration. Go back a few days further, to when a fine professor of physics was sacked for not toeing an ideological line on climate change at James Cook University.
It’s easy to write up what’s wrong with intellectual freedom in Australia. It’s much harder to work out how we work through this mess. A sure way to entrench the madness is to stay in our bunkers, convince ourselves that we, on our side of politics, whichever that may be, hold the high moral ground. That has been the way for the past few decades and things have gone from bad to worse. It must be time, then, to try something different. Perhaps listen to the other side, find points of common ground, admit where we may be wrong, and do all this in the spirit of respect for others, curiosity about ideas and a determination that Western progress genuinely means progress.
Inquirer spoke at length this week with Grahame McCulloch, who has been general secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union since its inception in the early 1990s, and whose working adult life has been with the union movement. The NTEU has been in the press a lot in recent days, lining up on both sides of the culture wars that are ripping apart intellectual learning in this country.
The NTEU, under McCulloch’s leadership, was an early defender of Peter Ridd, the geophysicist recently sacked on trumped-up charges of misconduct by JCU because he spoke out about science that is not properly checked, tested or replicated. Ridd said some people pushing out research were not very objective: “They’re emotionally attached to their subject and, you know, you can’t blame them, the reef is a beautiful thing.”
On March 1, the Queensland division secretary of the NTEU, Michael McNally, wrote to union members at JCU explaining the union’s support for Ridd. McNally said the right to academic freedom was specifically enshrined in the enterprise bargaining agreement with JCU, and “it is not for a university management to determined that such scholarly debate either denigrates or offends others”.
On June 1, the NTEU issued a compelling press statement that asked: “Whither academic freedom?” It demanded Ridd’s immediate reinstatement by JCU.
“The NTEU is obliged to reassert its commitment to academic freedom, even or especially where its expression contains statements that may be at odds with many or most members’ views. Without the maintenance of the core value of academic freedom, our universities would cease to be worthy of the name,” wrote McNally.
Are we more comfortable bashing the NTEU when it does something wrong than paying credit when it does the right thing? After all, the NTEU’s support for Ridd hasn’t received much attention in the press. Whereas the words of one NTEU branch member opposed to funding from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has received blanket coverage.
Talking to Inquirer this week, McCulloch said “the NTEU was prepared to consider making some financial contribution to Peter’s defence but in any event his GoFundMe (where Ridd raised $260,000 for legal costs) was oversubscribed so it was unnecessary”.
“I believe in serious intellectual discussion. That is why I am on Peter Ridd’s side even if I am concerned about the methods of delivering his message. But that’s a different point,” adds McCulloch, who grew up in Hobart, was a student leader at the University of Tasmania and then national leader of the National Union of Students.
A few days before we spoke, McCulloch posted some comments on a blog by political scientist and writer Don Aitkin, pointing out that the NTEU has defended many cases of academic freedom in the past two decades, from Ted Steele at Wollongong University to Andrew Fraser at Macquarie University, Judith Bessant at RMIT, Roz Ward at Latrobe, and now Ridd. Andrew Fraser was an academic moved on by Macquarie University in 2005 because he expressed views about the problems of increased crime from African migration that offended the sensibilities of orthodox views on campus. The issue still offends polite circles, and still demands to be debated. The Macquarie branch of the NTEU didn’t like Fraser’s views, but the centrally run union took the view that it raised fundamental questions about individual rights and academic freedom. Supporting him was non-negotiable.
“The union’s support in the Steele, Fraser, Ward and Ridd matters attracted some hostility from sections of our membership and the press,” wrote McCulloch. “The interesting point is that the intellectual perspectives of the academics involved have ranged from the right conservative to radical left poles … this underlines that NTEU has adopted a principled defence of academic freedom — a necessary condition for a viable university — even at the cost of internal and external criticism.”
Whatever we may think of a government imposing Ward’s Safe Schools agenda, if we believe in academic freedom at universities, it must apply equally to Ward and Ridd and Fraser.
The NTEU has 28,500 members, 16,000 of them academic staff. Union coverage among permanent teaching and research staff in universities is high, between 35 per cent and 50 per cent, and between 15 per cent and 20 per cent among professional staff. It has been a swift transformation given that academic labour was one of the last workforces, before enterprise bargaining, to become unionised.
Since its inception, the NTEU has been fighting to include academic freedom clauses in collective bargaining agreements with all 37 public universities in Australia, to sit alongside internal review panels, which Ridd did not have access to at JCU. McCulloch explained the fine pedigree of academic freedom clauses, drawing on the Humboldtian universities in Germany, the liberal philosophy of John Newman, John Dewey who created the American Association of University Professors, and models of academic freedom in Canadian universities. The NTEU deserves praise for this pursuit.
Now for the hitch. The general secretary of that same union has nothing to say about the hijacking of education by Matthew King, the NTEU branch president in the ACT who opposed ANU accepting money from the Ramsay Centre to teach a course in Western civilisation. King used an article in Quadrant by Tony Abbott, a Ramsay board member, to launch spurious objections to the Ramsay donation.
McCulloch’s silence on this matter is unfortunate. After all, the craven hypocrisy of ANU and King is obvious. If they are so concerned about relinquishing academic freedom, what about ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies which, as The Australian reported this week, receives money from Middle Eastern countries such as United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey? A Dubai foundation is listed as member of the centre’s advisory board. Six Australian universities host Confucius centres with money from Chinese donors who also assign a teacher to each program and have control over what is taught.
ANU’s pusillanimity is doubly clear. It had almost sealed a deal for students to learn the great books of Western civilisation, then caved in to a few rowdy voices. The next time ANU cries poor, the Education Minister surely will recall this episode as severely denting its credibility. And, by the way, why isn’t one of our premier universities already offering a course on the great books of Western civilisation, without outside money?
The head of a tertiary education union could have a lot to say here. What McCulloch will say is that he has had enough of the rising corporatism in universities that causes administrators to run for cover whenever there is a controversy. Vice-chancellors don’t want a Roz Ward or a Peter Ridd, or anyone who ruffles feathers. University bosses want calm waters so they can carry on with their marketing and advertising, domestically and especially overseas. Craven corporatism causes a university to lose sight of its mission as a place of learning, inquiry and debate. It explains why Bjorn Lomborg couldn’t find a home at an Australian university. It explains why University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence tried to stop the Dalai Lama from speaking on campus in 2013. Once leaked emails appeared in the media, the university tried to use logistics to justify its position, but emails pointed to a university keen to disassociate itself from a man who upset Chinese sensibilities. The same craven corporatism that explains JCU’s treatment of Ridd also explains ANU backing out of a deal with Ramsay. In fact, the NTEU branch manager exploited the cowardice of university administrators, writing to ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt that the association with Ramsay “could potentially damage the intellectual reputation of the humanities at ANU and the ANU more broadly”.
McCulloch will say only this: “I have consistently, across many universities, had it put to me directly by senior management, up to and including deputy vice-chancellor level, that the profitability, and more particularly the reputation, of the university is the primary consideration in these matters. That we can’t afford to have things that might put our brand reputation in the international marketplace or in the research race … in jeopardy.”
McCulloch says this corporatist attitude is a seriously conformist and stifling influence on internal debate at all levels of a university. The NTEU boss has no beef with corporations but worries when university leaders “have swallowed this management jargon bible and intellectual discourse has been lost in an arid sea of performance-management indicators that lack substance”.
Is McCulloch’s silence over ANU and Ramsay a case of the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, a union boss staying quiet to support a union comrade at the branch level? Or is there another way to join the dots here? Given the NTEU’s public statements on other matters such as Ridd, McCulloch’s silence over the Ramsay debacle may suggest deep dissent within the NTEU and disagreement with the actions of a rogue branch at ANU. Either way, it doesn’t pay to tar everyone with the same brush. There is too much at stake. Equally, left and right occasionally joining forces won’t settle the culture wars. That will happen only when the warring sides find more common ground to embed fundamental principles of liberty and enlightenment in our universities, and beyond.
A good place to start is learning about what is good, not just bad, about Western civilization.
In an interesting excursion into to what The Australian’s readers might be thinking about this business. Here are the comments posted online with respect John Carroll’s article:
So what has Western civilization done for us? Now philosophy, value systems and history have been mentioned but what about literature, dance and classical music? Wouldn’t our lives be eminently poorer without thes
Most who have succeeded over the last century+ in those artistic endeavours you mentioned are likely to never have graduated from Uni. Classical music might have had some respected candidates within their fields but Classical Music itself hasn’t seen a front billing in popularity since probably the mid-late 19th century. Talented people no doubt but otherwise unknown.
Great article, not one stupid or senseless idea. The professor will never be heard on the ABC. Time to found new institutions all over, stop funding the existing ones incrementally.
Humanities “academics” have abandoned any pretence at upholding genuine intellectual values. And this has happened before. Just look at how, for example, with few exceptions, the Humanities in Germany served the Nazi state.
In China they celegrate to butcher Mao, and at Melb Uni they want to hang Captain Cook. The MU system is a joke
Great insight. Thank you Professor Carrol. More of this please The Australian. There is hope for our institutions of higher learning as long as this calibre of academic discipline survives the onslaught of mechanical bureaucratic politicians.
30 years ago a migrant said to me, Rolf, the West is going to excuse itself out of existence. Horrifically possible that may be true. Thankfully there are enough rebellious youth around.
And here I was thinking that ALL academics were devoid of common sense and reason and analytical thinking. There is some hope after all.
Except that Prof Carroll is long retired.
Why do so called conservatives like John Howard and Tony Abbott reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Science after all is one of the most important tenants of Western Civilization. Further they are both comfortable with the High Courts gymnastics calling asylum seekers indefinite detention administrative imprison instead of judicial imprisonment. Otherwise habeas corpus does not apply and we are no longer a western society. Then again neither man believes in the Christian 8th commandment bearing false witness against people. Remember it is not against the law to seek asylum, however both men call them illegals. They obviously do not understand the fundamental tenants of Western society. Very sad.
Science isn’t about consensus. Ever. Religion often is.
@Garrett This just appears to be a leftist rant……unsubstantiated drivel!
@Garrett In referring to science, many people seem to conflate theories or interpretation of the available evidence with demonstrable fact. This is the case with climate change (formerly “global warming”), and even with evolution as the origin of species. Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and the evolution of man from single-celled organisms are strongly held beliefs, not empirically established facts – far from it.
A summary on the Parliament of Australia website says those who come to Australia by boat seeking Australia’s protection are classified by Australian law to be “unlawful non-citizens”, though they have a right under international law to seek asylum. In general, the tough response to asylum seekers arriving by boat was a pragmatic solution to an out-of-control border policy that had effectively ceded significant authority to a people-smuggling model. Most Australians are happy with the stricter stance.
The real problem with Western Civ studies for the Left is that it shows up the “new age” university education for what it is – a shallow and miserable imitation of true scholarship. WC will appeal only the strong and eager student rather than the lazy and bitter.
I am thankful that my degrees are in engineering and later business. Real fields of study that have real concepts able to have real applications
Your outlook is part of the malaise that has infected the Western world; bare ‘utility’ yields nothing but incomes and materialism, and in the end the despair of nihilism.
Engineering and science require rigour, intuition, creativity and hard work; failures are often very visible and result in litigation.
Most science science and humanities do not require those characteristics and often little more than an ability to live in an echo chamber full of non achievers, who believe that their ignorance qualifies them to pontificate on complex issues they do not understand eg electricity supply
Mine are in chemical engineering, physics, and…cosmology, er, similar to the V/C at ANU, O dear…can it be that studies of type 1a supernovae lead one to Mike’s malaise infecting the Western world? Nihilism awaits, so does despair…aaaaargh, off to the nearest euthenasiatorium…
You fundamentally miss the point. Pursuing any endeavour with passion creates truth, beauty and happiness. Gaining Knowledge for its own sake is shallow; having the wit and wisdom to know what to do with it is precious. Doing something worthwhile and doing it well is uplifting.
Power envy? I’m sure the captive market that colonies were and captive source of raw material via colonialism combined with captive source of labor through slavery helped a lot in modern Europe’s rise. Are we supposed to envy that?
On the other hand, this is one of the rare case of quality argument on this sections though. Hats off to the author who seems to understand that conservatism is different from the plain tabloid style appeal to baser instincts of humanity which daily mail and Murdoch media generally tries to cater to.
Slavery has been around for many thousands of years, in most cultures. Freedom from slavery is only a recent human achievement, especially in western cultures. It still occurs in Africa and Asia.
Thank you John for your patient, reasoned article on a subject of such importance that has been conflicted and distorted by those with other agendas.
Only the threat of a funding cut would now have any effect on having an open and free place for ideas and courses in Universities.
Agreed, the best article I have read in a long time. Thought provoking, timely and true.
JThis is the kind of truly great op-ed contribution from outside the newspaper industry that makes a great newspaper. No full-time press writer can produce a diamond like this week after week or day after day. I’m guessing it took months of work and distils a lifetime of experience and thought. It is the clearest and most incisive analysis of the tertiary education syndrome I have ever read.
However, it does not convince me that the Ramsay Centre can rescue the public university sector from itself, or even survive within it. On the contrary, it convinces me that the forces of nihilism are fundamental to public university humanities, because of the combination of academic autonomy and financial independence. Cut off from any need to justify its own existence or fertilise the source of its own sustenance, it must always end up this way. And freedom of thought, counter-intuitively, will always be its enemy, not its guiding light.
I would be approaching Notre Dame University, the only private university in Australia that has a fully developed faculty of humanities. It still has traditional courses in the liberal arts that celebrate the Western tradition, classics, the Enlightenment … everything that that state-run universities now refuse to study without lampooning it.
Great article. I hope Professor Carroll still has a job tomorrow when he fronts up at La Trobe.
He is an Emeritus Professor. He stands on his own good reputation. They can’t take that away from John Carroll.
This is one of the best articles I have ever read in a newspaper. There can be transcendent beauty in truth and high standards. The miserable regressives of the far-Left should be pulling people up but prefer to drag others down – jealousy, and feelings over facts, and avoiding personal responsibility which is arrested development. Their virtue is disguised hate. They hate humanity.
I don’t know if you have noticed or would agree that Professor Carroll’s article has, in general, raised the standard of ‘debate’, for want of a better word, on this board. It appears to be less given to specious name calling and subjective assertion and posters seem more willing to grapple with a few salient facts and real argument. It seems also that the general tone is a little less abusive. Maybe I’m dreaming. I hope not.
Socialism is revenge of the underling, pure and simple. Socialists identify with envy and guilt they divide and conquer.
ANU when are going to start burning books?
You have not heard or read of the burning of historian Geoffrey Blainey’s books that occurred at some Australian universities following some very mild remarks he made about immigration some 20 or so years ago?
Bit long but a great article. I wonder if the good professor would keep his job at La Trobe, after this article, if he was still employed there.
thank you Professor; a polemic work
Peterborough Cathedral is in [drum roll] Peterborough. Not Cambridge. If you look really closely you may discern a very subtle clue in the name. FAKE NEWS
Yes. It’s in Cambridgeshire though.
Correct. Many places are in Cambridgeshire but Peterborough Cathedral is only in one place, namely, Peterborough.
A cathedral – like a university – encompasses, or should encompass, more than the one place in which it is situated. The world at large does not need cloistered minds.
What a confused article. When I look at lists of the top universities in the World they are almost all universities with very strong Science, Engineerng and technology departments. Think MIT, Caltech, Stamford, Cambridge..Over the past 50 years social and humanity disciplines have ceased to be of great importance in deciding what a university shoiuld stand for. The disdainfull way that Carroll says a Polytechnic is not a University demonstrates that the arts departments in Universities have lost the plot.
No confusion at all. Carroll clearly distinguishes between the practical sciences and the humanities, with the corruption of the classical ideal of the university starting and being most advanced in the humanities.
Prof. Carroll is disparaging when he says “nor is a polytechnic a university” and it only suits the natural sciences and seems to make a put down about some business studies and various other professions. He reinforces that by saying a real university centres on the humanities. “It always has”, he said. Fortunately things change and the humanities can go on navel gazing while the world passes them by.
Both arts and science departments have lost the plot but it is less obvious in the science departments as they are just looking at physical phenomena.
Neither tend to have any idea about human nature or the true purpose of a university.
Professor Carroll simply states a fact when he says that a polytechnic is not a university. A 101 course in western civilization incorporated into degrees such as in science, engineering, law, economics, commerce, business, etc., would enrich the education of leaders in these fields and give them moral guidance.
A 101 course in western civilisation would be a good course, however to suggest any 101 humanities or social science course provides moral guidance is somewhat optimistic given than graduate and advanced degrees in these subjects have already created an amoral society
In the UK all technically oriented universities of repute started as polytechnics, other than Cambridge which had a strong maths and physics reputation, they were doing advanced research in many areas, the university community could not handle this and they were force ably converted to universities or merged into them. Part of the reasons for this was a general contempt for applied science which had led to the UK being among the last countries in Europe to offer university science and engineering courses, this forced the development of high grade polytechnics which were at least equal to universities in intellectual rigour. e.g. Loughborough, UMIST, Cranfield, Hadfield Rugby, London polytechnic. Without this forced conversion and assimilation of the polytechnics many of the universities would have died of irrelevance.
Victor Orbán’s landslide electoral victory on Sunday, gaining 134 seats out of 199 in Hungary’s parliament, increases his governing supermajority and endorses his tough policy of excluding illegal immigrants, especially from the Middle East. His success dramatizes a new reality across Europe and in Australia: a novel kind of party has emerged, disturbing the political scene and arousing impassioned debate.
Examples of this phenomenon include the other three members of the Visegrád group (Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia) as well as Austria’s four-month old government. Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, sees western Europe following the Visegrád group: “In the Eastern part of Europe, anti-Islamification and anti-mass migration parties see a surge in popular support. Resistance is growing in the West, as well.”
In France, the National Front emerged as the second strongest party in last year’s presidential elections, in Italy, a muddled situation could lead to an Orbán-like government, while Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation have made their mark on the Australian scene. Indeed, like-minded parties have quickly become a significant force in some twenty countries.
General election seats won by civilizationist parties in Europe.
An initial problem is how correctly to name them in general. The media lazily lumps these parties together as far-right, ignoring their frequent leftist elements, especially in economic and social policy. Calling them nationalist is wrong, for they neither bellow calls to arms nor raise claims to neighbors’ lands. Populist misses the point because plenty of populist parties such as La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) pursue nearly opposite policies.
Best is to focus on their key common elements: rejecting the vast influx of immigrants and especially Muslim immigrants. Non-Muslim immigrants also cause strains, especially those from Africa, but only among Muslims does one find a program, the Islamist one, to replace Western civilization with a radically different way of life. Turned around, these parties are traditionalists with a pro-Christendom, pro-European and pro-Western outlook; they are civilizationist. (This definition also has the benefit of excluding parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, that despise traditional Western civilization.)
Enlightened opinion generally reacts with horror to civilizationist parties, and not without reason, for they carry a lot of baggage. Some have dubious origins. Staffed mainly by angry political novices, they feature dismaying numbers of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim extremists, Nazi nostalgists, power-hungry cranks, economic eccentrics, historical revisionists, and conspiracy theorists. Some proffer anti-democratic, anti-European Union, and anti-American outlooks. Far too many – and especially Orbán – have a soft spot for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Putin (L) and Orbán chat amiably.
But civilizationist parties also bring critical benefits to the political arena: realism, courage, tenacity, and a civilizational critique necessary if the West is to survive in its historic form. Therefore, contrary to many friends and allies, I favor working with most civilizationist parties, advocating critical co-operation rather than rejection and marginalization.
Four reasons drive this decision: First, civilizationist parties pose a lesser danger than do Islamists. They are traditionalist and defensive. They are not violent, they do not seek to overthrow the constitutional order. Their errors are correctable. Arguably, they are less dangerous even than the Establishment parties which permitted immigration and shirked Islamist challenges.
Second, they respond to political realities. The lure of power has already inspired some civilizationist parties to mature and moderate; for example, the founder of the National Front in France was expelled from his own party by his daughter due to his persistent antisemitism. This sort of evolution entails personnel fights, party divisions, and other drama; however inelegant, these are part of the growing process and, so, have a constructive role. As they gain governing experience, the parties will further evolve and mature.
Third, parties focused on civilizationism cannot be dismissed as ephemeral. They emerged quickly and are steadily rising in popularity because they represent a sizeable and growing body of opinion. As they relentlessly approach power; it is better they be engaged with and moderated than be reviled and alienated.
Finally, and most critically, civilizationist parties have a vital role in bringing their issues to the fore: without them, other parties usually ignore immigration and Islamist challenges. Conservative parties tend to overlook these issues, in part because their big business supporters benefit from cheap labor. Leftist parties too often promote immigration and turn a blind eye to Islamism.
Great Britain lacks a civilizationist party because Nigel Farage decided that UKIP would not deal with immigration and Islamism.
To appreciate the role of civilizationist parties, contrast Great Britain and Sweden, the two European countries most lax in dealing with culturally aggressive and criminally violent forms of Islamism. Lacking such a party, these issues are not addressed in Great Britain; immigration and Islamist inroads progress almost unimpeded. Prime ministers might provide excellent analyses, but their words lack practical consequences and problems such as the sex-grooming gangs go unaddressed.In contrast, because Sweden’s civilizationist party, the Sweden Democrats, has doubled its votes every four years since 1998, it has fundamentally altered the country’s politics to the point that the country’s right and left blocs have allied against it. While this maneuver successfully excluded it from power, some policy changes have already occurred and more may lie ahead, especially as a conservative party, the Moderates, has raised the hitherto inconceivable notion of cooperating with the Sweden Democrats.
This points to another implication: the presence of an expanding civilizationist party pressures legacy parties of both right and left. Conservative ones, fearing the loss of voters to civilizationist parties, adopt policies to keep their support. The Republican Party in France has moved sharply in this direction, first under François Fillon and now under his successor, Laurent Wauquiez. Germany’s Free Democratic Party withdrew from the “Jamaica” negotiations for this same reason. Angela Merkel may still be chancellor of Germany, but her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, is doing his best to apply civilizationist policies.
Leftist parties have also begun to take note of the voters they have lost, especially those workers who tend to be economically and culturally on the front lines. The Danish Social Democrats led the way when its leader, Mette Frederiksen, declared “We want to introduce a cap on the number of non-Western foreigners who can come to Denmark” and offered a detailed, if ungainly, plan. The party would set up reception centers outside Europe.
Migrants in Budapest, Hungary, in 2015.
I acknowledge their many faults, but parties focused on immigration and Islamism are essential for Europe not to become an extension of Northern Africa but to remain part of the Western civilization it created. Their raising the immigration and Islamist issues makes up for their shortcomings. This assessment leads me to urge cooperation with civilizationist parties, rather than a horrified shunning of them. In my experience, they are open to discussion and to learning; they also have something to teach. For example, Anne Marie Waters of For Britain focuses on Islamic law, or sharia, bringing new clarity to complex problems.
Returning to Viktor Orbán: despite his serious flaws as a democratic leader and an alignment with Putin, his electoral success points to a real and legitimate anxiety in Hungary about immigration and Islamization, especially in the aftermath of the 2015-16 surge in both. Orbán leads, but others are not far behind. In twenty years, I predict, civilizationist parties will likely be widely in government; no less important, their policies will have influenced their conservative and leftist rivals. It would be folly to try to ignore or ostracize this movement; far better to temper, educate, and learn from it.
Why is it that when we think of Roman Emperor Caligula, we recall the late John Hurt’s over the top, mad and malevolent portrayal in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s sardonically serious I Claudius.(1976). Or else, Malcolm McDowell’s vicious, almost cartoon villain in Penthouse pontiff Bob Guccione’s semi-pornograpic biopic Caligula(1979).
British author Simon Turney turns I Claudius on its head with the bumbling, stumbling, stammering Clau-Clau of book and film cast as a canny, conniving and ultimately successful player positioning himself to assume the imperial purple. Gone is the Caligula so malevolently and magnificently portrayed by John Hurt. No horses in the Senate. No incest. None of the orgies, explicit sex and delectable cameos of Penthouse Pets. But there is violence and gore – loads of it, in fact – and plots and conspiracies aplenty. But it is Claudius who is “nasty, brutish and short” while young Gaius is tall, blonde and well-intentioned. He’s certainly not all hugs and puppies, but he’s an astute, well-meaning but misunderstood victim of imperial circumstance who rides the perilous waves of bereavement and betrayal to assume the psychotic Tiberius’ throne.
The full title of Turney’s tome says it all: Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul (Orion 2017)
It is inevitable that history is written by the victors and throughout the past two millennia there have been plenty of cases of good men being maligned by their successors, as well as evil men canonized by their heirs and successors. Rome was no different and may indeed be the very epitome of this. Being so far removed from our modern world, we have only fragmentary archaeological and epigraphic evidence to directly base our research on – that and the writings of those who lived in these times.
And so it is with Caligula. Turney argues that once the chaff is cleared away, misunderstandings and misrepresentations clarified, and the more obvious cases of character assassination discarded, we are left with a complex man who fell foul of the most influential and dangerous people in the Empire. He could hardly have been the monster he has painted, for while those powerful senators and nobles managed to remove him, the ordinary people of Rome held him up as the golden prince and the army remained his – the latter in part on account of how as a child, he’d accompanied his father on victoriouscampaigns in Germania and Syria, earning the sobriquet “Little Boots” – in Latin, “Caligula” – named for the replica army sandals he wore on these road trips.
So, leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the city gates and enter Rome, 37AD.
Emperor Tiberius Caesar is dying. No-one knows how much time is left to him, but the power struggle has begun. The ailing old tyrant thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order to the chaos and carnage engineered by Sejanus, the cruel commander of the Praetorian Guard. The story is told through the eyes of Livilla, Caligula’s loyal, little sister and confidante. She recounts how her quiet, caring, beautiful brother became the most powerful man in the known western world, how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever. She is an attractive and insightful narrator, drawing the reader into her life as niece and hostage of mad, bad Tiberius and sister of his infamous successor.
Starship Captain Picard as Praetorian commander Sejanus
Being part of the extended family of the Divine Augustus is a tough gig. The five children of Germanicus appear to be cursed from birth. Their war-hero father is believed to have been poisoned on Tiberius’ orders, and mom and two brothers are arrested for treason, exiled on desert islands, and starved to death. Cold, ambitious, Agrippina is married off to an abusive husband, but keeps her eye on the ultimate prize. Sweet, docile Drusilla is wedded to a mild nonentity and pines for her own true love. Only Caligula and Livilla remain, as virtual captives on Capri, Tiberius’ pleasure island.
The ascent of the family into the imperial succession transforms Caligula from the easygoing lad Livilla knew to a shrewd, wary and calculating young man, used to watching his back and learning the dangerous power game of thrones. As much out of self-preservation as ambition, he maneuvers himself into the top job. A golden age beckons for Rome, but things unravel as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and plot his demise. He becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, eventually losing touch with reality and his humanity. Even loyal Livilla comes a cropper. Power corrupts and absolute power, whilst not surreal scale of the films, leads Caligula to a rendezvous with the assassins’ knives.
Complementing the human drama of the quasi-Shakespearean rise and fall of a tragic hero, Turney also provides his tale with a political dimension. There is the well known backstory of the Roman Republic and how Julius Caesar was slain by gallant patriots who feared that he was about to make himself King – a concept that was anathema to SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar’s heir, Octavius, who became Augustus, whilst hailed as ‘Imperator’, was most careful not to become ‘Rex’. Through Robert Graves’s epic, Claudius as courtier and as Caesar, perennially proclaims his desire to restore the republic – although, truth be told, the republic had run its course, governed by a corrupt and self serving senatorial elite. It was, perhaps, a nostalgic chimera, which, nevertheless, provides numerous conspirators in Turney’s narrative with a worthy motive. Caligula, they fear, is falling under the influence of royal middle eastern friends who advertise the attractions of absolute monarchy. At the end, Caligula’s Caesar complex commands a Caesar solution.
Turney next turns his attention next to another Roman emperor who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Skipping the lugubrious Nero, who features in Caligula as a chubby babe in the arms his devious and disloyal momma Agrippina, the projected series of “The Damned Emperors” will jump to Commodus, last seen impaled by Maximus Decimus Meridius, known today as Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s solid if somewhat overwrought sword and sandals saga Gladiator (2000). It would appear that whatever history and show business has conceived, Turney aims to tear asunder.
In That Howling Infinite has traveled the Roman world many times before:
The serpentine storylines of Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run against Richard Nixon that fall, and Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
Hill sets the scene beautifully…
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
Indeed, for most of that year, the western world was full of unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied wants.
In this, the third in a series of posts recalling the tumultuous events of 1968, we review a year that breathless commentators have dubbed “the year that changed America”, and, drawing an even longer bow, “the year that changed the world”. It was indeed a year of seismic social and political change, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in America, to protests and revolutions in Europe, and famine in Africa. And as the year ended, Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our sad, blue planet from space.
It was indeed a great year to be alive, young and engaged – although a very great many endured grief, misery and pain, and met violent deaths. Yet, it is in our nature to imagine and indeed, re-imagine our salad days as the best of times and the worst of times. But looking back through our back pages, the year was perhaps no better or worse, no more significant or seminal than any year fore or aft. Like cars seen through the rear-vision mirror, memories always seem a lot closer and bigger. Recall the last verse of Bobby Goldsboro’s tear-jerker Honey, released that February: “…see the tree how big it’s grown. But friend it hasn’t been too long. It wasn’t big”. But we do, however, enhance our depth of perception, and accordingly, our understanding.
1968 conjures up a kaleidoscope of searing images apart from those of police clubbing demonstrators on the streets of Chicago.
A South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains of a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. The Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis standing next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and point to where the assassin’s bullet was fired. Students at Columbia University taking over campus buildings, only to be hauled away, battered and bloody by police. Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan in the basement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Women dumping bras and girdles into a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant. Protesters facing off against coppers and horses in a violent mêlée in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Panther Salute as second-placed Aussie Peter Norman stands tall and silent in solidarity (a stance which would earn him opprobrium in his still prejudiced and conservative homeland).
As young people in the UK, we viewed these scenes to an exciting and eclectic soundtrack of blues, rock and psychedelia as the pop music cavalcade of the ‘sixties rock ‘n rolled on.
The Beatles sang Hey Jude, and The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man, and Jimi Hendrix delivered simply the best-ever cover of a Bob Dylan song with his blistering, sinister All Along the Watchtower. Imagining we were Born To Be Wild, we were invited to get our motors running and head out on the highway, or else to “take the load off, take the load for free”. We could pointlessly ponder the mysterious meaningless of MacArthur Park, or just lay back in a hazy daze with the Hurdy Gurdy Man (a strange ditty that has enjoyed a brief comeback with the recent hippy, trippy Romans-versus-druids soap Britannia). Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
Images and music aside, what was it really like to experience 1968?
Christopher Allen, in a piece in The Australian reviews an exhibition commemorating the events of 1968 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His is an original overview, advising caution when seeking signs and patterns in contemporary events. The past, as they say, is a foreign country – they see things differently there. “The signs 50 years ago were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
In an entertaining and upbeat piece in The Guardian, Hendrick Herzberg rebuts that cliched putdown of how people who remember the sixties weren’t really there, recounts his own adventures, and claims that “In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction – a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001”. I would add 1789, 1939, and 1989 and 2011. Check them out.
I too remember the ‘sixties, and I too was there, albeit not on the political, social or cultural front lines. But I was at Grosvenor Square, occupied the vice-chancellor’s offices, did drugs (soft, mind), dug Cream, read Oz and IT, and totally got into Hair, which opened in London that year. And today, I share Hetzberg’s reverie: “In 1968, the ‘sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068. The ‘sixties again! I Can’t wait!”
In contrast, Tod Gitlin gazes through a glass darkly in a sober retrospective for The New York Review of Books: “When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy”.
And indeed, the enduring historical memory of 1968 is one of a succession of seemingly disconnected conflicts and collisions, turmoil and turbulence, not only in the USA but around the world. Yet beneath the apparent chaos, Gitlin seems to suggest, there were patterns that can only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight or as visions from a great height – much like, perhaps, that iconic image of our blue planet.
“Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued appeared breakable, breaking, or broken”.
The pendulum was swinging away from the previous year’s Summer of Love into a darker place. The lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, released that September, seem, in retrospect, to describe the turning tide: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, so I wished that I could stay, but before the thing could answer me, well, someone took the lamp away. I looked around, and a lousy candle’s all I found”. In November 1968, Jimi Hendrix sang: “Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”.
There lurked a new narrative, and this was one of backlash and counterrevolution. “What haunted America”, writes Gitlin, “was not the misty spectre of revolution but the solidifying spectre of reaction. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal”.
”This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely. And presciently. Fifty years on from this momentous year, all that is old is new again.
Read on and enjoy these articles and the accompanying pictures.
But first, a poignant memento of 1968 from the 1979 film version of the “tribal love-rock musical” (yep, that how it was marketed back in the day) Hair, which i saw in London in the fall of 1968.
Commemorations are the greeting cards that a sensation-soaked culture sends out to acknowledge that we, the living, were not born yesterday. So it is with this year’s media reassembly of 1968. What is hard to convey is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victor of 1968 was the counter-revolution.
When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy: a South Vietnamese general’s blowing out the brains of a prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive; the Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing at where the assassin’s bullet had come from; demonstrators at Columbia taking over campus buildings, then hauled away, battered bloody by cops; Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police; Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s shots at the Ambassador Hotel;Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; police clubbing demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; women’s liberation activists dumping girdles, hair curlers, and bras (unburnt) in a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant; Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in defiance.
A more thorough survey would take note of social collisions that, however violently repressive, failed to register in America with the same supersaturated significance. For example: the killing of three students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by highway patrol officers after the students protested segregation at a bowling alley (February 8); the near-deadly shooting of the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin (April 11); Chicago police battering a wholly nonviolent antiwar protest (April 27).
As for less bloody demonstrations, there were so many, so routinely, that TheNew York Times regularly grouped civil rights and antiwar stories on designated pages. Neither does this rundown of calamities take into account images that did not see the light of day until much later, like the color shots of the My Lai massacre (March 16), not published until late 1969—by which time they were almost expected. Or the images that never materialized at all, like the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrating students by troops in Mexico City (October 2).
Images aside, what was it really like to experience 1968? Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued then appeared breakable, breaking, or broken.
The textureof these unceasing shocks was itself integral to what people felt as “the 1968 experience.” The sheer number, pace, volume, and intensity of the shocks, delivered worldwide to living room screens, made the world look and feel as though it was falling apart. It’s fair to say that if you weren’t destabilized, you weren’t paying attention. A sense of unending emergency overcame expectations of order, decorum, procedure. As the radical left dreamed of smashing the state, the radical right attacked the establishment for coddling young radicals and enabling their disorder. One person’s nightmare was another’s epiphany.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly.
The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, “a new heaven and a new earth” (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.
The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in “free market” think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or “co-opted” in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, TheMary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (Hair, Oh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.
In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.
1968: the year that changed America
Hendrick Herzberg, The Guardian, April 15, 2018
Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?
Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.
There is a continuing theological controversy among sixtiesologists concerning when The Sixties can properly be said to have begun and ended. Tuesday 8 November1960 – the day Senator John F Kennedy was elected president – has a pretty good claim to the beginning. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, which appeared on every campaign poster, had been LEADERSHIP FOR THE 60’s. Out with the dull, conformist, priggish, crewcut, Eisenhowerish Fifties! In with the dashing, exciting, daring, sexy, slightly longer-haired, Kennedyesque Sixties!
A darker view – the view I take – sets the clock of The Sixties ticking three years later. The assassination of President Kennedy was a crack in time. Like Sunday 7 December 1941; and like Tuesday 11 September 2001; Friday 22 November 1963 was “a date that will live in infamy”. And, like them, it was a day that is remembered in vivid detail by those who experienced it.
I was taking a noontime shower in my Harvard dorm room, having been as usual up till dawn getting out the college daily, the Crimson. I heard a faint, muffled radio news bulletin coming through the wall from the neighboring room. As I dried off, I turned on my own radio. I can still see the edge of the shower stall and the little bathroom window next to it. On the grass below, a girl was standing under a tree, weeping. The Crimson put out an extra that afternoon, but without my help. It felt too much like a schoolboy stunt. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to play newspaperman. I didn’t want to be distracted from the communal grief all around me.
So The Sixties, in this conceit, began either in 1960 or, like Philip Larkin’s sexual intercourse, in 1963. And the ending? That too has long been a subject of debate. There are plenty of nominees, two of which may be considered the frontrunners. Like the beginnings, one is light and one is dark. The light one: Friday 9 August 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, freeing the nation from a quarter-century of having had him to kick around. The dark one: Altamont. Sunday 6 December 1969. Google it. Or see the movie.
It is possible to build a narrative around two currents of the year’s events, currents that melded and crisscrossed and fed off each other, to startling effect: the music, mostly a kaleidoscopic, wildly imaginative explosion of rock’n’roll; and the politics, mostly a politics of protest – protest against the Vietnam war, against racial injustice, and, more broadly, against what was experienced as the joyless, stultifying blandness of mainstream American life.
Those two currents, the music and the protests, washed over me as they did over millions of others. In 1966, a year out of college and a newly minted cub reporter for Newsweek, I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco. Something was happening there, and I found myself in a position to absorb it.
The scene, cultural and political, was quite something. A new kind of music – rooted in blues, rock, and electronica, and supercharged by psychedelia – was drawing motley-dressed weekend crowds to a couple of repurposed old dance halls, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. For $2.50 you could spend hours listening and dancing to bands that were still unknown back east or down south in LA – bands still without record contracts but with wonderful names: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – often paired with iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. The walls were mesmerizingly alive with rhythmically pulsating, ever-changing liquid projections. It was, in the patois of the moment, mind-blowing. For the gentle dreamers that Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s gossip columnist, had dubbed hippies, the Fillmore and the Avalon were Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic.
Like every young man of my generation, I had to reckon with the draft. I was against the war, of course, but I didn’t think I had the stomach to go to jail over it. I had zero desire to go to any more schools, graduate or otherwise. I was unmarried and childless. Canada was not my country, my country was the United States of America. I wasn’t physically or mentally ill and was too proud to fake it. And I wasn’t a conscientious objector. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get killed either. My solution was the US navy.
I got a haircut and reported to the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months of officer training. From there I asked to be sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t like it sounds. Unless you were a flier (like John McCain, the future senator), a Seal (like Bob Kerrey, also a future senator) or a member of the Riverine Force (like John Kerry, a future senator, presidential nominee, and secretary of state), being a naval officer in Vietnam, especially a “public affairs” officer like me, posed very little physical risk. Instead, however, the navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to a desk job in lower Manhattan.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenziedI stole away from the office whenever I could, and devoted the time to salving my conscience. I pitched in at the ramshackle headquarters of the War Resisters League. In March, after Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, I took to hanging around his Manhattan headquarters, doing layouts and writing headlines for the Kennedy Current, the campaign’s weekly tabloid.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenzied: the bloody shock of the Tet Offensive; the electoral abdication of President Lyndon Johnson; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the riots that followed; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the chaotic, riotous Democratic convention in Chicago; Nixon’s hairsbreadth victory over Hubert Humphrey in November. And me? Well, at Christmastime I got the orders to Vietnam (as a “recreation officer” at the US base in Da Nang) I’d hoped for two years earlier. Only this time I didn’t want to go. My antiwar sentiments had hardened to the point that I decided I preferred jail to further military service, and I announced my intention to refuse the orders.
But before I could achieve fame as a martyr for peace an unexpected medical difficulty developed: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, the wound bled for days, and when I was diagnosed with a (relatively mild) form of hemophilia, the navy quickly mustered me out. I had managed to have it both ways: veteran (kind of) and resister (in a way).
Why didn’t I think of that?
In 1968 the sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068.
In one of the most famous stories from antiquity, Croesus, the proverbially rich king of sixth-century BC Lydia, in what is now Turkey, was disturbed by the rise of the Medes and the Persians on his eastern borders. Thinking it might be wise to crush these potential rivals before they became a serious threat, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, plying it with gifts to ensure a favourable answer. The oracle replied that if he made war on the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus accordingly gathered his armies and attacked, but he was defeated and taken prisoner by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
The oracle had a reputation for accurate yet riddling answers. A half-century after these events, Heraclitus, one of the most brilliant Pre-Socratic thinkers and famous for enigmatic aphorisms, declared: “The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.” It is up to us to read the sign he gives, and Croesus had fatally misconstrued that sign in his eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear.
The signs 50 years ago, in 1968, were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
The political protests of May 1968 in Paris were among the most significant events of that year. Although partly emulating earlier student agitation in the US, the French protests were much broader in their implications. The term that the French use for this movement, la contestation, suggests its universal spirit of revolt and its nebulous sense of direction, if not nihilistic disorientation. It was a catastrophic time for many young people caught up in the hysteria and afterwards left to pick up the pieces of interrupted studies and broken careers, in an ambience of cynicism and disenchantment. Ever since the revolution of 1789, the French have been prone to political overexcitement, and throughout much of the 20th century communists continued to believe in their own kind of revolution in the same way Christians believe in the second coming.
The zealots thought 1968 heralded the end of days and the imminence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the grassroots movement, spreading from students to workers, was not supported by the Communist Party, which was still committed to a totalitarian and Stalinist model of central control. A few months later, a similar pattern evolved within the communist world: the opening up of Czechoslovakia to greater freedom, democracy and independence — the Prague Spring — was crushed in August when Soviet tanks invaded the country and occupied its capital.
The events of Paris and of Prague dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of communism in the West; the old left began slowly bleeding to death until its collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years later. Thus May 1968, as in the story of Croesus, did indeed herald the fall of an empire, but not the one the student rioters thought they were going to bring down.
Much else happened in 1968, including the opening of the new National Library in Canberra, whose anniversary is the occasion for this exhibition. As we enter the exhibition, we are confronted by a wall of 21 tabloid bills, in the centre of which is one announcing the opening of the library. The remaining headlines sum up many other momentous events of the year, starting with the mysterious loss of prime minister Harold Holt, who disappeared, presumed drowned, while spearfishing off Portsea in December 1967.
America was shocked by two political assassinations: that of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Both events are covered in the exhibition by photographs, posters and copies of contemporary news magazines. Particularly interesting, especially today, is an article about the revulsion against gun culture that followed the death of Kennedy, whose brother, president John Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier. There are pictures of individuals willingly giving up guns at police stations: so many were handed in that the police, as we see in another photograph, ended up disposing of them by dumping them in the sea.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was growing more intense — it was the year of the Tet offensive — and provoking greater opposition at home, mainly because of the draft, of which fatal randomness we are reminded by a set of the wooden balls that were used in the birthday ballots. It was clearly a political mistake to send conscripted soldiers to Vietnam; professional soldiers expect to fight wherever their nation sees fit to send them, but conscripted troops should be reserved for national self-defence.
At the time, however, the spread of communism in Asia looked like a serious menace, which it would be smug to discount with the benefit of hindsight. Communism had only recently been suppressed by the British in the course of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and, more recently still, by Suharto in Indonesia, in a far bloodier struggle from 1965 onwards. So the threat of violent totalitarian revolution was real. At the same time, there was a prima facie moral justification in helping South Vietnam defend itself against the north. The way that North Vietnamese aggression was turned into a fight for freedom in the eyes of many in the West was one of the first examples of the self-destructive neurosis that has afflicted the Western intelligentsia for the past couple of generations. A map of Vietnam published in the US in 1968 includes an insert labelled “Freedom’s struggle in Asia”, with a pall of black covering Siberia, Mongolia, China and North Vietnam. It is easy to understand the fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, and clear that this had serious consequences for Australia.
And to argue that time was running out for the communist dream, and that even China would, within a generation, be starting to build its own unique model, combining capitalist profiteering with communist authoritarianism, would have seemed mere wishful thinking.
For the time being Mao Zedong, after killing 45 million people by starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-62, had launched the almost equally disastrous Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, and posters showed beaming peasants and workers celebrating the foundation of new socialist regional committees.
This is the great difficulty in anticipating the future: we can imagine plausible scenarios but the really important things are often ones that seem entirely implausible until they happen. It would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that Southeast Asian countries racked with poverty and communist insurrection in 1968 would be booming capitalist economies by the early 20th century, but even more unbelievable that one of the most significant threats to security, freedom and human rights would one day be the rise of fanatical Islamic belief among the populations of several regional countries. Religion in general was assumed to be a long-spent political factor, of marginal relevance in the thinking of left and right.
Even in the Middle East, religion was not yet an important factor. Israel had spectacularly crushed its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967 and extended its control over buffer territories in the north and east; its neighbours were angry and humiliated, but were all ruled by secular dictators. Iran was a prosperous, secular and modernising nation under the rule of the shah, even though there was growing opposition to his authoritarian rule. But a map of The Daily Telegraph motor marathon from London to Sydney reminds us how essentially peaceful the region still was: it is many years since such a rally could follow an itinerary from London through Europe to Turkey, then on to Tehran, Kabul and Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), before the cars were ferried to Fremantle for the final legs from Perth to Sydney.
Culturally, the period represented a new level of mass consumption of pop music and other media. At the time, pop groups often seemed to give voice to various forms of social and political dissent, but in retrospect their objective role was to channel and neutralise the malaise, turning it into harmless entertainment. Television had more or less completed its takeover of family life by 1968; people who used to play the piano or talk or read a book after dinner now sat glued to serials and talk shows. TV was a new form of addiction, whose damaging effects we now can begin to understand in the age of far more serious addiction to smartphones and other devices.
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the conception, planning and building of the new library. Canberra, only 55 years old in 1968, was still in the process of growing into its ambitious urban design. An area from Capital Hill down to the lake had been designated as a special ceremonial triangle, destined to house not only the new Parliament House but also some of the most significant cultural edifices of the new city. These included the National Library on one side and the National Gallery, which was established in 1967 and opened in 1982. The new library was a favourite project of Robert Menzies as prime minister, and the exhibition includes correspondence and his speech in introducing the National Library bill in 1960. Although he retired in January 1966, his successor Holt invited him to lay the foundation stone in March that year.
In his speech on that occasion, Menzies expressed the hope he would live long enough to see the white marble structure reflected in the waters of the lake: this is exactly how Max Dupain photographed the finished structure in 1968. Seeking grandeur in the depth of distance, he takes a view of the new building from across the lake at night, so the library appears as a small but radiant temple-like form, its reflection shimmering silently on the dark waters.
1968: Changing Times. National Library of Australia, Canberra, Until August 12, 2018
Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Celebrated Israel author Amos Oz argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking, reflecting on the rise of fundamentalism, and how, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanaticism, and isolationism. He argues against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion, celebrating the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion and discovering an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement as the perfect antidote to dogma.
Some people argue that Israeli commentators like Amos Oz, David Grossman, Gideon Levi, Uri Avnery, Ari Shavit, and Sarah Tuttle-Singer are cliche-bound idealists who love the Israel they wish to see, and not the one of a real, mutable and dangerous world. Fanatics and zealots themselves, indeed. It is a valid if over-the-top criticism, but does not detract from what they are telling us. They, like their critics love their country with all their hearts. But they and ourselves all have our idealized homeland, a Dreamtime of our memories and imaginations, and it is, in a way, a kind of “magical thinking”. The irony is that the outside, “western” world often appears to share the same, romanticized, idealized and unrealistic concept of what Israel was, is and ought to be, and harshly holds it to that lofty standard regardless of the fact that no nation , however heroic and glamourous its creation story, is pure and innocent.
Nevertheless, Australian publisher Louse Adler distills perfectly the message of this timely, perceptive book:
Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, by Amos Oz
Louse Adler, The Australian May 26, 2018
Writing about the Middle East may be considered timely, given the latest battles between the Israeli military and the citizens of Gaza. Yet this impasse has been in urgent need of resolution for 70 years.
Whether you celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel or mourn it as the Nakba, what remains a tragedy is the lack of a just solution that brings peace to the region and recognises the equally rights of competing claims.
Dear Zealots: Letters From a Divided Land, the 40th book from Israeli writer Amos Oz, offers the slimmest hope that peace may be possible, and a dire warning about the unholy coalition of anti-democratic forces that may thwart progress. Criticism of Zionism and contemporary Israeli politics is de rigueur in Israel, often cited as a testimony to this democratic island isolated in the midst of a fundamentalist Middle East. It is a truism that debate in Israel is robust and that critics of the state are afforded the right to dissent.
Despite treason accusations and the issuing of death threats, writers and journalists such as Oz, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Gideon Levy continue to identify the moral malaise infecting Israeli society while the occupation of Palestine continues and settlements increase.
But these longstanding and courageous opponents of the government’s attitudes to its neighbours have had little impact, despite their oratorical skills, international visibility and credibility. Great writers continue to write, speak out, sign petitions and demonstrate to no avail. Paradoxically, beyond Israel it is almost impossible to speak about government policies without inciting the wrath of its loyal defenders.
Into this seemingly intractable quagmire Oz has lobbed his latest literary missile. He argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking. In three powerful essays he reflects on the rise of fundamentalism and why, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanaticism, isolationism.
Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Dear Zealots is an argument against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion. Only Oz could include Israel’s “hilltop thugs”, Islamophobes, the Ku Klux Klan and Islamic State in one sentence; adding veganism, smoking and breastfeeding to this catalogue of zealotry. Against the rise of the zealot Oz celebrates the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion. His discovery of an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement is the perfect antidote to dogma.
Oz loves Israel. He tends to romanticise the place, pointing to the country’s eight million prime ministers, eight million prophets and eight million messiahs. However, a cacophony of voices and opinions doesn’t ensure a genuinely democratic state. A state that does not offer full rights to all citizens, a state inextricably bound by religious authority, where there is no separation of church and state, imperils democracy.
The conflation of Israeli political practice and Jewish heritage makes it difficult to prise apart the state, the residual impact of its eastern European founders, religious influences and the challenging ethnic demographics of the polity.
Oz rages against Halachic Judaism, a form of religious piety demanding blind faith, investing God with supreme authority and believing the Torah protects Jews from assimilation. In Halachic Judaism, the history of the Jewish people is an unchanging story of sin, suffering and repentance. According to this logic, the innocent victims of the Holocaust, like those killed in Israeli military service, are martyrs sanctifying God’s name. Where else do we hear this today?
Who is a Jew remains a fundamental question. The answer delivers remarkable consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the most Jewish Jews are the “black hats”. Next are the settlers, then the traditional Jews who drive to synagogue but don’t eat prawns, then the Jews who are lost. The worst are the Jewish anti-Zionists, lefties who go on about human rights and peace.
Oz argues Jewish identity does not derive from holding fast to religious orthodoxy but is
amassed over generations, customs absorbed from outside which become part of the family, perhaps a certain type of humour, an inclination to be critical and sceptical, to be ironic, self-pitying and sometimes self-righteous, pragmatism tinged with fantasy, ecstasy diluted with scepticism, euphoria blended with pessimism, melancholy cheerfulness, a healthy suspicion of authority and a stubborn resistance to injustice.
The summation by Oz, often described as the secularists’ rabbi, of the commandments is the exhortation “to cause no pain”. That humanist ethos insists on the right of all to equal rights and a dignified life. That principle is disappearing from the fabric of Israel and the moral lacuna is being filled by pieties and pessimism.
Fundamentalism in Israel has brought together an unholy alliance between the ultra-Orthodox Haredim (anti-Zionist) and the (pro-Zionist) Messianic Jews of the settlements. Neither recognise the authority of the state of Israel. Fortress Israel is also the binding idea for Israel’s religious fundamentalists and political right; they perpetuate the myth of Israel being forever in conflict with the rest of the world.
The Israeli left’s attempts to resolve the conflict imply the terrifying prospect that Israel’s exceptionalism will evaporate, its identity will be lost, with assimilation an inevitability. Oz proposes instead that the focus should be on the future, forgetting the border fetishes of both the left and right along with the flags and holy sites.
In the final essay, Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon, Oz argues that Israel hasn’t won a war since 1967 and that, after 100 years of struggle, the Palestinian aspiration to self-determination has not been vanquished. There is justice and injustice on both sides in equal measure, and a two-state solution is the only way to ensure the continuation of a Jewish state and justice for the Palestinians. This will require compromise from both, and compromise is the antithesis of zealotry.
Dear Zealots is a passionate polemic against dogmatism and defeatism. Viscerally angered by the idea of irreversibility, Oz rejects as irrevocable the settlements and occupation. Religious fanatics demand a theocratic state; the right continues to ignore international pressure; the left argues that the status quo is apartheid and the only solution is one state. Oz, a left-wing Zionist, opposes occupation but defends the historical right of Jews to statehood. He refuses to give up on democracy, on Israel or on justice for Palestinians.
Jews and Arabs are Semites, sharing more than they have chosen to remember, including a sensibility tinged with pessimism. Perhaps we should keep in mind the story of the Jewish optimist and the Jewish pessimist. The Jewish pessimist turns to the Jewish optimist and says: “Oy, things can’t get any worse for our people!” The Jewish optimist turns to the Jewish pessimist, smiles, and says: “Sure it can!”
It is the obligation of all of us with a social conscience to wish Oz all power to his pen.
Louise Adler is chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing.
Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, By Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, 224pp, $29.99)
“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”.
The famous line from that old romantic William Wordsworth evokes a degree of nostalgie for les temps perdue. And so it is with the many published recollections and reveries surrounding the fifties anniversary of “les évènements de Mai” 1968. Perhaps we would be better served with Charles Dickens’ take on an earlier French Revolution:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
As German social historian Ulrich Raullf has written: “Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”. During the closing scenes of the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And so it is with that Paris Spring.
To those of us who were young and politically progressive in those dear dead days, the protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest of that springtime in Paris offered a mix of hope and vicarious adventure.
It was not simply a fight against something, like the Vietnam War that was raging at the time. Rather, It was a fight for something – for social change, for new forms of political, economic, social and class relations. We believed change was in the air, and there was a palpable frisson (such a great French word) of excitement.
We’d all read our Communist Manifesto, that mercifully brief and breathless primer for wannabe rebels, and now, to misquote oldKarl Marx (ironically, two hundred years old this month), a spectre was indeed haunting Europe. Anything could happen. The future was unwritten. Regimes could tumble, and old ways crumble. Everything was mutable, impermanent – an idea that was simultaneously uplifting and terrifying.
We watched these events from across the La Manche with admiration and not a little envy. Our perspective may have been obscured, coloured and tittilated by distance and the biases of mainstream media, and by the pictures and the posters that found their way onto bedsit and bedroom walls. But there was not the 24/7 syndicated saturation that we get nowadays nor the live tweets and FB posts from the Sorbonne.
As Mitchell Abidor wrote recently in The New York Times: “The images…which changed my life when I was a teenager watching them on TV, are still burned in my memory: the enormous marches through the streets of France’s major cities; the overflowing crowds of people speechifying and debating in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne; workers occupying factories and flying red flags over the gates; students occupying universities and being beaten by the police. Workers and students, it appeared, were united against a sclerotic Gaullist state…These were images of the previously unimaginable: a revolution in the modern West. Revolution was no longer something that happened only in the past, or elsewhere, or in theory”.
Mick Jagger later explained how he and Keith Richards came to a compose one of the Rolling Stones’ seminal songs, released that August on Beggars Banquet: “Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet…It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing”. And so the Stones sang:
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy ‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy Well what can a poor boy do Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band ‘Cause in sleepy London town There’s just no place for a street fighting man
We all have differing memories and perspectives of those days, as do today’s commentators who may or may not have been born back then, or lived of the far side of the world, and who in these polarised times, cleave to tediously turgid talking points.
News Corp opinionistas and others on the right have put it all down to the nihilistic nonsense of pampered youth, using it as yet another stick which to beat the virtue-signalling, politically correct, young culture warriors of today. And on cue, The Australian’s resident Ayn Randista Janet Albrechtson is particularly possessed of the perception that a “wabble of woudy webels” holding our universities hostage to what she sees as a virulent post-modern anarchism identical to the apparent hedonist nihilism of the students of Paris. But many on the left are also captive of binary thinking, looking back on the events as a grand and glorious upsurge of worker and student solidarity and revolutionary zeal – a latter-day replay of the Paris Commune (another doomed Intifada that ended with firing squads during le semaine sanglant”. And then there are others who view it today as the political equivalent of coitus interruptus, remembered all over the world this year as a great missed opportunity, and the end of a revolutionary illusion. But, as the selection of articles featured below demonstrate, in retrospect, it probably a mix of all three, and maybe, even, none at all …
To many contemporary commentators, the violent unrest that shook Paris through May 1968 was driven by a cathartic reaction to a national feeling of ennui. After decades of economic growth, high employment rates, rising living standards, and a burgeoning educational system, France was bored – with the ageing but immovable and indomitable President Charles de Gaulle, and with a stultifying, bureaucratic, “father knows best” vein that ran through the public, political and social establishment, through administration, education, industrial and sexual relations.
The times they were a’changin’, but the ferment, the fashion, the fun that roiled and rock ‘n rolled the US and even staid and stitched-up Great Britain, had somehow bypassed La France – 1968 did not begin in Paris, but in Berkeley, California around 1965, where the Vietnam protests originated, spreading by early 1968 to Britain and to Germany. Viewing photographs of the sit-ins, demonstrations and street-battles, commentators remark on the straight appearance of the students with their sports jackets, ties and long skirts, and “short back and sides” haircuts, such a long way away from London’s Carnaby Street and California’s Summer of Love. To borrow again from Karl, the French has nothing to loose but their chains.
No doubt there was indeed a fair dose of teen rebellion during that Parisian prima vera. But there was much more to it than just wild oats, teen spirit, a cursory reading of Marx, Mao and Marcuse, and a battle cry of Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! It takes more than the desire for a yahoo to take to the streets for a month of barricades and cobblestones (so French and red chic!) in the face of paramilitary batons, water-cannons and teargas. Though it must be said that the French do Revolution extremely well. It doesn’t mean that they succeed. Indeed. Most have failed, and have ended badly with blood on the streets, betrayal and retribution.
But there were in, effect, three Mays, each of them quite distinct and different.
There was the May of the students, which we all recall so well in our own subjective hindsight, a protest against the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders, and yes, demanding more sex!
Then was the May of the workers with their call for higher wages, less hours, and consultation with management. Some ten million people came out on strike and brought the factories of France to a virtual standstill. They were, despite the slogans of worker-student unity, no true friends of ostensibly spoiled middle class student firebrands and their foreign pals. They joined the revolution for their own sectional and economic reasons, and the end, the state represented by Jacques Chirac, secretary of state for employment, and the unions, led by the Communist Georges Séguy, agreed that the revolt had to end, and negotiated tremendous pay increases, a shorter working week, the strengthening of workers’ councils, and much more.
And there was a third May – an “anti-May even – that ultimately carried the day, one that the students failed to take into account and which their left wing heirs have often ignored. On May 30, half a million people paraded on the Champs-Élysées in support of President de Gaulle – perhaps the largest demonstration of the month. The France that the students were rebelling against, one they thought was all but dead, turned out to be very much alive – and eager to put rebellious youth back in its place. Charles de Gaulle emerged triumphant from the elections in June. And the political right remained in power in France until the victory in 1981 of François Mitterrand and his very un-1968 brand of socialism.
In the wings was the maker and breaker of kings and communes: the French Army, the traditional bulwark of successive French Republics, and the strong arm up canny conjurer Charles de Gaulle’s sleeve. Then there were those half a million French men and women who took to the streets at the fag end of the month to defend the staid and safe republic. De Gaulle had at first been nonplussed by the students, describing them at one point as chienlit – literally, “shit-a-bed” – youngsters and and shocked by the scale of the strikes, and even briefly fled France for Germany whilst he recalibrated. And finally, when Le President had made his feints, and done his deals, and went to the people, he was re-elected in a landslide in an anxious conservative backlash.
The revolution, such as it was, kind of faded away, much like Marx has reckoned the state would fade away. The students went back to their crowded classrooms, and the workers, to higher wages and a shorter working week. And those who John le Carré might’ve called “the many too many” returned to the safe, serene, suburban lives. God was in his heaven and de Gaulle back in the Élysée Palace.
Since then, the French left has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, while the right and neoliberalism have grown ever stronger. As for “les soixante-huitards”, some have become grumpy old men, and conservatives even. Others, like Daniel Cohn Bendit, Sorbonniere firebrand Danny Le Rouge, and now a Green, German member of the European Parliament, are open to new ideas and changing times.
Chou En Lai, China’s premier at the time, was asked of the French Revolution – the big one, that is, if 1789 – whether he thought it was a good thing. “Its too early to tell” he replied. As many conservatives are eager to point out, he seems to have been talking about May 1968.
But, after May 1968, “all changed, changed utterly”, to quote WB Yeats. As the Bobster had written just a few years prior, the line had been drawn and the curse had been cast, and the order was rapidly fadin’. The old dispensation of patriarchal authority and catholic morality had been mortally wounded. the Karl’s chains had indeed been broken and France had entered the swinging ‘sixties.
That’s all from me. Read on and enjoy the stories and loads of fabulous pictures…
The Paris riots of May 1968: How the frustrations of youth brought France to the brink of revolution
Fifty years ago today the streets of Paris staged a battle between 6,000 student demonstrators and 1,500 gendarmes – within days it had snowballed into civil dispute that saw 10 million French workers go on general strike and brought the economy to a virtual halt. Andreas Whittam Smith recalls the events of ‘Mai 68’
The French always celebrate 1 May with a few riots. They did so this year with added piquancy because it was the 50th anniversary of the famous “Mai 68” when, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Left Bank, the whole month was devoted to riotous assembly led by students. In contemplating these events, I recall Wordsworth’s often quoted phrase: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” – unless, of course, you were struck by a cobblestone hurled by a student demonstrator or soaked and knocked off balance by a police water cannon.
Presumably those who were demonstrating in Paris last Tuesday have now resumed their normal lives. The point about May 1968, however, is that they didn’t go back to college or to work the next day, they carried on, some of them for the whole month. Why was that? After all, economic growth had been unusually strong, the country was calm, both politically and socially, inflation was weak, living standards had been rising and there was little unemployment.
Was it in a way a very 1960s thing? That question is prompted by a French historian of the period, Éric Alary, who observes that “May 68 is seen as a period when audacious moves seemed possible and during which society profoundly changed”. For that is an accurate description of the nature of the 1960s, whether in Western Europe or in North America.
At the same time, there was a big rise in the sheer number of young people as a result of an increase in the birth rate in the closing stages of the Second World War and for some years afterwards. Thus, in France, the under-20 cohort rose from 30.7 per cent of the population in 1954 to 33.8 per cent in 1968. At the same time in France (1967), the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 16.
Two men take evasive action during a Paris street riot on 30 May (Getty)
This required a massive expansion of teaching staff and building. As a result, students often found themselves being taught by hastily trained teachers in hastily built class rooms. In France, as in Britain, this was followed by a big expansion of the university sector. There was inevitably something ramshackle about it all, and students noticed. Yet the command structures of educational establishments remained unchanged.
Nonetheless, universities are never just academic establishments full stop. For their campuses and their indoor and outdoor spaces lend themselves to meetings and debates and even to organising mini demonstrations. The intellectual gods of these 1960s students were Marx, Freud and Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher. In a famous passage, Sartre wrote that “God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within himself nor without does he find anything to cling to”. This struck home. For as Bob Dylan sang in 1965 – “How does it feel/How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”
One had either to start things on one’s own without adult backing, or not at all. This was an unprecedented and intoxicating freedom. As the French student leader Dany Cohn-Bendit told the Paris demonstrators in May 1968: “There are no marshals and leaders today. Nobody is responsible for you. You are responsible for yourselves.”
In fact, as is the way of things, Mai 68 began not in central Paris, but in Nanterre, a suburb seven miles to the northwest, and not in May but on 22 March. The construction of the university of Nanterre campus in a bleak shanty town had begun in 1962. In the spring of 1968 it was still not finished. The building were exceedingly functional and contained some 12,000 students. They were particularly shocked to find themselves living and doing their studies in what was in effect a building site. They demanded, too, the right to circulate freely between the residences of males and female students, still forbidden in what one might call pre-1960s style. There was a lot of justified discontent.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit was known as ‘Dany le Rouge’ because of his politics as well as the colour of his hair (Getty)
Some 150 students, including far-left groups together with a small number of poets and musicians, occupied a building. The police surrounded it. After publication of the students’ wishes, they left the building without any trouble. But then they took their protest movement to the Sorbonne in the very middle of the Latin Quarter. That was how Mai 68 started.
In a drastic action, the authorities shut down the University of Nanterre on 2 May. The students who had decamped to the Sorbonne were bound to think that this was a hostile act, an outbreak of war between the university authorities and the student body. It had been natural to head to the Sorbonne, France’s premier university, which had the prestige of its ancient foundation 700 years earlier. This meant nothing to the police, of course, who invaded the Sorbonne the next day.
In response, on 6 May the national students’ union and the union of university teachers organised a protest march. It was one of the key events of the month. The head of the Paris police was obsessed by the need to protect the Sorbonne and its surroundings from a massive invasion by the students. He placed 1,500 officers in defence. But then came 6,000 protesters in waves. Overnight the confrontation was particularly violent. Thousands of cobblestones were ripped up and used as projectiles by the demonstrators. The police responded with teargas grenades. Dozens of gendarmes were taken to hospitals. Students were wrenched from the arms of the police by their colleagues.
The next day, students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, that the police leave the university and that the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. But negotiations broke down. When the students returned to their campuses to find that the police were still in occupation, a near revolutionary fervour began to grip them.
The lyrics of Bob Dylan captured the sense of isolation and alienation felt by many young people
The next big date was 10 May. The atmosphere became more and more tense. Left-wing students were seeking a confrontation and the force of law and order did nothing to avoid it. Senior politicians now began to fear that an insurrection was being planned that would soon set ablaze the whole country. When the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, a special police unit specialising in riotous situations, blocked the demonstrators from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2.15 the next morning after negotiations once again floundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn.
The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred, and the aftermath was shown on television the following day. This demonstration of heavy handed police brutality brought on a wave of sympathy for the strikers. Moreover, in a highly significant move, the major union federations called a one-day strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May. The workers were going to march with the students.
They had their own grievances. There had been sporadic industrial trouble since the beginning of the year. More than half of them put in a 48-hour week. They feared that their standard of living had ceased to improve. Unemployment, albeit from a low base, was beginning to rise. As a result this was no longer a Paris event, for workers took to the streets throughout France. Their slogan was “Ten years! That’s enough!” referred to Charles de Gaulle’s long period as president.
French politicians Michel Debre and Andre Malraux at the tomb of the unknown soldier, demonstrating their support for De Gaulle (Getty)
The events the next day, 14 May, were as important. For workers began occupying factories, starting with a sit-down strike at the Sud Aviation plants near the city of Nantes. If students could occupy their universities, then workers could seize control of their factories. By 16 May, workers had occupied roughly 50 factories throughout France and 200,000 were on strike by 17 May. That figure snowballed to two million workers on strike the following day (18 May) and then ten million, or roughly two thirds of the French workforce on strike the following week (23 May).
The unions assumed that the workers simply wanted more pay. So, when they were able to negotiate substantial pay increases with employers’ associations, they thought their job was done. But workers had also demanded the ousting of the De Gaulle government and in some cases demanded to run their own factories.
The demonstrations and the strikes went on. Meanwhile on the morning of 29 May, De Gaulle suddenly boarded a helicopter and left the country. He went to the headquarters of the French military in Germany and called a meeting of Council of Ministers for 30 May back in Paris. On that same day, the unions led 400,000 to 500,000 protesters through Paris chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle”. The head of the Paris police carefully avoided the use of force.
Sensibly De Gaulle responded by dissolving the National Assembly and calling a new election for 23 June. He ordered the workers to return to work immediately, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not. The Communist Party agreed to the holding of the election. Immediately revolutionary feelings began to fade away. The police retook the Sorbonne on 16 June. And the Gaullists won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history.
The May days of 1968, it turned out, had been a convulsive moment, nothing more enduring than that. Nonetheless in Wordsworth’s words, “to be young was very heaven”.
Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968
It began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other. And it ended in one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution. John Lichfield goes in search of the spirit of 68 . Saturday 23 February 2008
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
It took a dead British poet to understand May 1968. The conventional French politicians of the time did not have a clue what was going on, even the left-wing politicians. The student and worker revolt in France 40 years ago this spring was a cultural revolution, even a sexual revolution, before it was a political one.
The young William Wordsworth wrote the above lines about a much bloodier French revolution. They express perfectly, all the same, the mood of May 1968: the idealism, the whimsy, the zeal, the humour, the self-righteousness, the excitement.
The photographs tell the story. On the first night of rioting in the Paris Left Bank, on 3 May 1968, the riot police wore old-fashioned uniforms and old-fashioned helmets. They looked rather like French soldiers from the 1914-18 war.
The male students wore jackets and ties or neat jumpers and short hair and well-pressed trousers. The women had long hair and sensible skirts and hair-bands. There were few jeans or sandals or beards.
This, remember, was more than a year after Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was the year after the Flower Power revolution had begun in San Francisco. No self-respecting, revolting student in America or Britain or Germany would have worn a jacket and tie on a barricade in the first days of May 1968. Before the end of the student revolt in early June, the French students looked more convincingly revolutionary: they were scruffier, more hirsute and more psychedelic. They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.
May 1968 was, in its origins, a revolt against the stifling papa-knows-best conservatism, and dullness, of General Charles de Gaulle’s economically booming 1960s France. It was, at one level, a catch-up, fast-forward revolution for the right to wear long hair and purple trousers. It began in March, at the new Nanterre University west of Paris, as a demand for the rights of boy and girl students in their late teens and twenties to sleep together.
There were other student revolts in Europe and America, before and after May 1968. In no other country did a student rebellion almost bring down a government. In no other country did a student rebellion lead to a workers’ revolt, one that rose up from the blue-collar grass roots and overwhelmed the paternalistic trade-union leadership as much as the paternalistic, conservative government.
The two revolts remained largely separate: despite the efforts of a fringe of Maoist students, despite the eloquence of Jean-Paul Sartre, who stood on a box outside the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt telling the workers about the student-worker-intellectual paradise to come. (“Be brief,” someone advised him, but he wasn’t.)
The workers’ demands were tangible and precise. The students’ aims were diffuse and contradictory: more philosophical than political and often shot-through with sexual innuendo (and frustration). “Marxist, Groucho tendency.” “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” “Take your desires for realities.” “Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers.”
Of the two rebellions, it was the wildcat general strike by workers which worried the government most at the time. A young minister called Jacques Chirac was sent secretly to prepare the way for the pay rises, and reduced working hours, which helped to bring the strike to an end. He put a revolver in his inside jacket pocket before going to his clandestine meetings. This was not self-dramatisation; it was just the giddy mood of the times.
And yet, 40 years on, it is the student revolt which is most remembered and the workers’ revolt which has been almost forgotten. This is partly because the leaders of the young people who built barricades and overturned cars in the Paris Latin Quarter in 1968 went on, in many cases, to become senior journalists, writers, philosophers and politicians (including the present foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner).
It is also because the French cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s was compressed so memorably into four or five weeks. Elsewhere the changes were stealthier. Philip Larkin (another dead British poet) said: “Sex was invented in 1963, between the Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP.” In truth, the end of the old social and sexual certainties and taboos in Britain was a gradual process from 1963 to 1970, driven by the Profumo scandal, the Beatles, the reforms of the first Harold Wilson government and a virus of revolt carried on the wind of television from Vietnam and the United States.
In France, typically enough, the same transition was acted out in a great, concentrated psycho-drama on the streets. As the French journalist and writer Jacques Julliard said, revolutions in France are “rites of passage”. Quiet, peaceful, social transitions, even noisy, peaceful transitions, are not the French Way.
“To go from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII, from moderate absolutism to a parliamentary monarchy, clumsy foreigners would have gone by way of a Louis XVII,” M. Julliard wrote. “We went via Robespierre and Napoleon.”
By the same logic, France needed six weeks of mayhem to go from grey trousers to purple trousers; from the social and sexual repression of the 1950s to the social and sexual freedom, and confusion, of the 1970s (and afterwards).
The French students who manned the Left Bank barricades thought – among other things – that they were revolting against French-ness itself. In fact, they were behaving in a classically French way.
Perhaps because it was such a French occasion, French commentary to this day tends to treat May 1968 as a purely French phenomenon. Reading some of the French analyses of 1968 – both for and against – one could have the impression that the May student revolt alone created the post-1970s world of tolerance and individualism, free-thinking and consumerism.
Other Western countries were going the same way before France. Most of them had brief or scattered outbreaks of anti-establishment violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even of terrorism in the case of Germany and Italy. None of them had a brief, intense, mythologised youth rebellion as France did.
The fast-forwarding of events made the myth of May 1968. And the myth, as myths do, has achieved a life of its own.
During his presidential campaign last year, Nicolas Sarkozy launched into a series of vituperative speeches in which he promised to “liquidate” the legacy of 1968, which he blamed for everything from poor school results to high crime figures and the decline of old-fashioned patriotism.
And yet M. Sarkozy, a twice-divorced, consumerist, value-muddling, politican par excellence, is himself a child of 1968. At least, he is a child of the social changes which 1968 symbolised rather than generated.
Similarly, on the French Left, May 1968, precisely because it was so memorable, has become a sacred totem. Unfortunately, it is the most hidebound, unthinking lefties who cling onto the memory of France’s revolution manqué. The open-minded, joyful, jokey, surreal side of May 1968 – the “Groucho tendency” – tends to be forgotten. There are, none the less, specific reasons why “May 1968” – which began in March and ended in June – happened in France in the way that it did.
From 1945 to 1975, still known as “les trentes glorieuses”, France enjoyed 30 years of unbroken growth and relative prosperity. After the revolving-door governments and the lost colonial wars of the 1950s, France under President Charles de Gaulle settled into a period of unusual stability in the 1960s (give or take a few incidents of pro-colonial terrorism).
In that period, an old France, mostly agricultural, mostly Catholic, was being quietly buried. In 1945, there were still 7,000,000 farmers and peasants in France. By 1968, there were 3,000,000. (There are now, by the way, only about 500,000.)
The rural population poured into towns and suburbs and worked in offices and factories. Their children thrived in urban schools. Long before 1968, anyone who passed the baccalaureate (equivalent to A levels) had an absolute right to go to university, virtually for free.
In 1938, France had 60,000 university students. In 1961, it had 240,000. By 1968, it had 605,000, as many as Britain, West Germany and Belgium combined. Few new university campuses were built or extended to take the massed ranks of students. Nanterre University was one exception.
Despite the overall rise in prosperity, and levels of education, De Gaulle’s France was a quietly oppressive place. Memories of French failure in the war were everywhere but rarely discussed. The general wanted a modern, dynamic France rooted in an old, conservative and non-dynamic social system.
Students felt that they were treated like children and herded like cattle into vast “amphis” or amphiteatres to scribble down notes. Factory workers were treated like inferior beings, by bosses and union bosses alike. They also resented the fact that the 1960s prosperity had failed to trickle down to the shop floor.
In a celebrated, prophetic, but also obtuse, article in Le Monde on 15 March 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté said that France was suffering from a dangerous political malady: “boredom”. Elsewhere, he said, from Spain to the US, students were protesting about wars or fundamental liberties. “French students are mostly concerned that the girls … should be able to visit the bedrooms of the boys, which is a rather limited conception of human rights.” Not so limited if you are French, aged 20 and the sexual revolution is already well under way in the United States and even in supposedly frigid Britain.
The right of young adults to have sex with one another in their rooms was, indeed, one of the first of the demands of students at Nanterre University, which led directly to the events of May 1968. Sociology students at Nanterre, led by a 22-year-old, red-haired, French-born German called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, successfully used sexual oppression as a symbol for political and spiritual oppression. ………
By 22 March 1968, the issues were much wider, including the Vietnam War. Cohn-Bendit led 300 students in an occupation of the admin block at Nanterre. Several students, including Cohn-Bendit, were accused of “agitation” and threatened with expulsion.
A demonstration in support was planned in the courtyard of the venerable Sorbonne, in the centre of Paris’s Left Bank, on 3 May. A far-right-wing group, Occident, enflamed tempers – and pumped the left-wing students with self-righteous adrenaline – by threatening to attack the “manif” (demo).
The police scattered the “righties” and then began to remove the “lefties” from the Sorbonne. The demonstrators had been promised that they could leave freely. About 400 of them were brutally arrested.
Larger demonstrations gathered. The first “pavés”, or cobble stones, were thrown at the police. The Paris police, supported by a few busloads of the notorious CRS riot police, responded with indiscriminate baton charges and volleys of tear gas, assaulting students, journalists, passers-by, tourists, cinema-goers and elderly couples who were sitting at café terrasses watching the fun. Many of the younger victims, and some older ones, joined in the riots. By that night, there were barricades all over the fifth arrondissement.
A week later a large crowd of students tried to “liberate” the Sorbonne, which had been ringed by the CRS. Trees were ripped up, cars overturned and cobble stones hurled – exposing yards of sand, and leading to one of the best-known anarcho-libertarian sayings of 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (Under the cobble-stones, the beach).
On 13 May, the trades unions – against the better judgement of their own leaders – called a one-day strike and demonstration. The government ordered the CRS to withdraw, and an immense student and worker demonstration choked the Left Bank. But the strike did not end after one day as the union leaders planned. Eight million workers went on indefinite, wildcat strike, the largest labour stoppage in French history.
The demonstrations spread to provincial cities. A half-hearted attempt was made on 24 May to burn down the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, began secret – and then public – negotiations with the unions. Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France, returned and was expelled again.
Parts of the Left Bank of Paris came to resemble giant debating chambers, in which anyone who wished could discuss, endlessly, the future of humanity. At the 18th-century Odéon theatre, beside the Luxembourg gardens, there was an all day and all night, open-ended conference between, among others, Renault car workers, students, cleaning ladies, tourists, celebrated writers and artists and businessmen with nothing to do because
their factories were on strike. In the wings of the theatre, young men and women performed loveless sexual acts never previously seen on the French stage.
On 29 May, De Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden in West Germany. Crazy rumours spread that he had resigned or that there had been a military coup. In fact, De Gaulle was talking to the French military high command, making sure that they would support him.
The next day a carefully managed, but huge, counter-demonstration by De Gaulle supporters blocked the Avenue des Champs Elysées. The President called early elections (which he won easily the next month).
To the fury of the students and the more revolutionary workers, the trades unions accepted a generous, capitalism-preserving deal from the government: a 10 per cent increase in all wages and a 35 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a shorter working week and mandatory employer consultations with workers. Right wing economists argue that France’s post-war prosperity ended that day, though in fact it continued until the mid-1970s and the first oil crisis.
By early June, the strikes and the student demos had melted away. France was saved. Utopia was cancelled, or at least postponed.
What remains of May 1968? Some left-wing thinkers of the time have – like William Wordsworth before them – become grumpy and conservative in their old age. The philosopher Régis Debray, a minor figure in the events of 1968, argues that, far from a left-wing revolution, “les évènements de Mai” let loose the individualism and the ultra-capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the paving stones, the beach; under May 1968, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
But this is once again – in the French way – to mistake May 1968 for the whole of the Western zeitgeist of the late 1960s. If anything survives of May 1968, the month and the myth, it is the tendency to romantic absolutism of the French Left. What other developed Western country could produce four (or was it five) Trotskyist candidates in a presidential election? French social democracy is still paying the price for such dogmatism, which is quite alien to the best of the free-wheeling, mind-opening spirit of ’68.
This, at any rate, is the argument made by a 62-year-old Green German Euro MP who played a part in the “events of May” in Paris. “I say forget May 1968,” he said. “It is finished. Society today bears no relationship with that of the 1960s. When we called ourself anti-authoritarian, we were fighting against a very different society.”
The Green German Euro MP is now a pro-market, pro-European, libertarian liberal and ecologist. Like the best of the “soixante-huitards” (sixty-eighters), his mind is still open to new ideas and changing times. His name is Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
May 1968: A Month of Revolution Pushed France Into the Modern World
By Alissa Rubin, The New York Times My 5
Just six weeks after France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, pronounced that the country was “bored,” too bored to join the youth protests underway in Germany and in the United States, students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, one of the most illustrious universities in Europe.
The day was May 3, 1968, and the events that ensued over the following month — mass protests, street battles and nationwide strikes — transformed France. It was not a political revolution in the way that earlier French revolutions had been, but a cultural and social one that in a stunningly short time changed French society.
“In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned intellectuals but also manual workers,” said Bruno Queysanne, who, at the time was an assistant instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of the country’s most prestigious art and architecture schools.
“Each person that engaged, engaged himself all the way,” he said. “That was how France could stop running, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world was in agreement that they should pause and reflect on the conditions of existence.”
Today it is hard to imagine a Western country completely engulfed by a social upheaval, but that is what happened in May 1968 in France. It is hard to find any Frenchman or woman born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of that month.
“Everything was enlarged by 1968; it determined all my life,” said Maguy Alvarez, a teacher of English to elementary school students, as she walked through an exhibition of posters and artworks from the period.
“In religion, in sexual things, what it meant to be a woman — that it did not mean only to serve a man or to submit to men. These are questions you think about your whole life,” she said.
Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement in France grew out of the 1968 upheaval and the intellectual ferment of the time.
While some people saw the mass strikes and protests as a shattering and painful event that upended social norms — the authority of the father of the family and of the leader of the country — for most, it pushed France into the modern world.
“The 19th century was a very long century,” said Philippe Artières, a historian and researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and one of the curators of the show on the posters of 1968.
“We’re hardly out of it, and you have to keep in mind that in ’68 we were just 50 years after the revolution of ’17 and a century after the Paris commune,” he said, referring to the Russian Revolution and the 1871 uprising by mostly poor and working class residents of Paris (although the leadership was middle class) that was brutally put down, leaving as many as 10,000 dead.
President Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, is the first post-1968 French leader not to have personal memories of the upheaval — the exhilaration, the sense of possibility, and the potential power of the street.
Universities across the country shut down as students, often joined by their professors, occupied the classrooms and courtyards. In Paris and other major French cities, workers, students, intellectuals and anyone else who was interested thronged into the street for mass rallies.
Blunting the sense of exhilaration were the daily confrontations with the police. As early as May 3, police charged into the Sorbonne and ousted the students; in the ensuing melee, some 600 were arrested, according to Agence France-Presse.
The students returned and quickly set up barricades to stop the police from entering the areas where they were massing. The two factions faced off night and day: The police wearing helmets and armed with riot shields, tear gas, truncheons and water cannons; and the university students, sometimes still wearing the ties and jackets mandated at the time by the university administration. The students dug up paving stones from the Paris streets to heave at the police.
The night of May 6 was particularly violent, with 600 people wounded and 422 detained, but it was overnight between May 10 and May 11, known as the “night of barricades” that people still talk about.
The protesters ripped up the paving stones from two streets in the Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is, set fire to cars and confronted the police. By the time the bloody fighting ended, hundreds of students had been arrested and hundreds more hospitalized, as were a number of police officers.
“During the night there were very violent protests, cars burned, things broken, but during the day, there was an air of vacation, of summer, a relaxed feeling,” said Mr. Queysanne, who later became a professor of the philosophy of architecture at the University of Grenoble and then at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
“But then the next day, people came and discussed what they had seen; some were for, some were against. This was incredible, there was freedom of speech, words were set free.”
Amazingly, somehow the violence did not taint the euphoria of the protesters.
“The feeling we had in those days, which has shaped my entire life really, was: We’re making history. An exalted feeling — suddenly we had become agents in world history,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders at the time, in an essay in the May 10 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Simultaneously with the student protests, France’s factory workers walked off the job and in many places camped out on the factory floor, refusing to work and demanding a new order.
The shipyards in Nantes stopped loading and unloading freighters, and work in much of the car manufacturing and aeronautics industries also ceased. The unions did not call the strikes but when workers and students embraced them, they acquiesced.
By the third week in May, between 10 and 11 million people were on strike. There was no gas for cars because the refineries came to a halt; the trains did not run, nor did the Paris Metro.
In France, the enemy of change was the government, then headed by President Charles de Gaulle, who tried to repress the strikes and the sit-ins, but on May 29, he appeared to be overwhelmed.
In an unprecedented move, he left the country without saying either that he was leaving or where he was going. It was a startling turn of events and for a day or two the students and workers thought they had won.
But Mr. de Gaulle returned, dissolved the National Assembly and called an election for the end of June. Already, on May 27, the government and the unions had made a deal to get the striking workers back on the job, offering them generous pay increases and benefits.
But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended.
“At the level of daily life, and the relationships of people with institutions, there were big changes,” said Mr. Queysanne, the professor of the philosophy of architecture.
When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.
But that heady atmosphere of social foment, excitement and a sense of deep camaraderie that cut across class and education, that touched factory workers, students, intellectuals and farmers alike had passed.
There would be other moments of social protests, but none that were quite the same as those that occurred in the Paris spring of 1968.
During the major strikes and student uprisings in France that year, the École des Beaux-Arts turned itself into a workshop for revolutionary messages.
PARIS — Fifty years ago, almost to the day, students here began to strike over the rigidity and hierarchy of the French university system, defying the historical deference of young people to their elders; the same day, workers at a major factory near Nantes walked out.
Within days, the strikes spread to other universities and factories, and garbage collectors and office workers joined in. By mid-May, more than 10 million people across France were on strike, and the country had all but come to a standstill.
The protests of 1968 ushered in more than five years of social upheaval, intensifying an antiwar movement in Europe and contributing to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. And it all started with a call to upend the old order.
“There was an idea that France was a class society and it had to be torn down,” said Éric de Chassey, a professor of contemporary art who curated, with Philippe Artières, “Clash of Images,” an exhibition at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. It showcases posters from those early days of social upheaval, as well as art and documents from subsequent protests for women’s rights and gay rights.
The show’s title refers to the way the 1968 protests evolved from uniting the left and people from different backgrounds — middle class and working class — to dividing them when the strikes ended and leftist factions re-emerged. But in those first months of protest, university students, factory workers and government employees joined intellectualsand teachers to try to fulfill the dream of making France a more egalitarian place.
The École des Beaux-Arts was at the center of the revolt. Many of the prestigious art school’s students and teachers occupied the 300-year-old stone structure on the Left Bank of the Seine: Rather than holding meetings only in the building’s vast rooms and courtyards, they turned the school into an atelier, or artists’ workshop, where they created protest art.The often arresting posters straddled the line between art and propaganda.
In keeping with the utopian ideals of collective work and anonymous authorship, the artists labored together to conceptualize, design and write slogans for the posters that framed their revolutionary sentiments.
“Someone would say ‘We need a poster that talks about immigration,’ ” Mr. de Chassey explained. “Then someone would propose a design, someone else would propose a slogan and then it would be discussed by a committee.”
The students printed hundreds or sometimes several thousand copies of the posters and taped them to lampposts and walls around Paris. In an era before the internet, the posters became a trusted way to communicate plans for action as well as the protesters’ political messages. There was little faith in electronic media at the time because it was state owned.
The strikes that began in May 1968 became the template for social protest in contemporary France, and although the fervent anti-establishment sentiments have faded, the mentality of struggle still resonates. The Beaux-Arts posters, on display through May 20, give a sense of the ferment of idealism, rebellion and rejection of the status quo that permeated French society and marked the second half of the 20th century.
Some of the posters are easily comprehensible, but others need a little explanation. Here’s a look at 11 of the most emblematic.
One of the most iconic posters on display depicts a member of the French riot police (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or C.R.S.) as a baton-wielding member of the SS, the Nazi special police.
Under the title “Grève Illimitée” (“Unlimited Strikes”), three figures walk arm in arm, representing the students, union members and factory workers who joined together in protest.
The words on a bottle of poison read, “Press Do Not Swallow,” a warning not to trust the state-owned news media. At the time, France’s television and radio stations were state-owned corporations.
The raised fist is a straightforward call to march and to fight for the causes of students and workers. It remains a well-known symbol of solidarity on the left.
Police officers raided the École des Beaux-Arts and forcibly expelled the students who had occupied it, turning the complex into a workshop. In this poster, a helmeted officer, complete with wolf-sharp teeth, grips a paintbrush in his mouth, a symbol of the police takeover of the school.The slogan plays on the French verb “afficher,” which means “to display” but in its reflexive form, “s’afficher,” means “to show up.” The poster says: “The police show up at the Beaux-Arts, the Beaux-Arts displays in the street.”
The poster above is a straightforward reference to the ties that bond factory workers and university students and that calls on them to unite.
This poster shows the silhouette of Charles de Gaulle, a World War II general and the French president at the time, covering the mouth of a young man. “Be young and shut up,” he says. The expression was also an adaptation of a well-known phrase, sometimes used to denounce sexism, from a popular French film of 1958 titled “Be Beautiful but Shut Up.”
A sketch of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French-German student leader during the uprising, above the French words for “We are all undesirables.” It refers to Mr. Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from France during the protests, when he was deemed “an undesirable.”
In this poster, the factory chimney completes the last letter of “Oui,” or “Yes,” above the words “Occupied factories,” to encourage workers to take over more of them. At the time, factories all over France were closed or occupied by striking workers. Among the many companies affected were the auto manufacturers Renault and Citroën, and the aeronautics firms Sud Aviation and Dassault.
In response to the protests, Mr. de Gaulle was reported to have said: “Reform, yes. Havoc, no.” The poster above reads “Once again, the havoc is him.” Until 1968, Mr. de Gaulle was primarily associated with the resistance in World War II, but in ’68 he tried to repress the strikes with armed police officers. His lack of sympathy for the strikers and his seeming inability to understand them made him the target of much of the protesters’ anger.
This classic poster of May ’68 depicts unity between French and immigrant workers. France had recruited many workers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to help build railroads and other infrastructure or industrial installations. A short man, who appears to symbolize the factory owners or owners of capital, tries to push them apart. The slogan reads, “Workers united.”
Daphné Anglès contributed reporting from Paris.
Alissa Johannsen Rubin is the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. @Alissanyt