In his essay ‘Failures of Imagination’, Hessom Razavi asks Australia the pivotal question, ‘Why are we among the few countries in the world that practise mandatory, indefinite detention of all undocumented – yet not illegal – non-citizens?’ Why, indeed! Every time I hear about mandatory detention, my heart misses a beat and my chest tightens. It passes, because nobody can sustain breathlessness for long. But thoughts linger. How do we live with the way we torment people in such a manner? How did Australia become even more cruel than it was in the colonial era? It is time that mandatory detention ceased. It is long past time that we signed up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We have nothing to lose and so much to gain.
Lindy Warrell (online comment)
Inhumane and ineffective
Hessom Razavi’s essay is an important and nuanced insight into the human story behind cold statistics and sensationalist newspaper headlines. The appalling lack of empathy and imagination that has led to inhumane and ineffective detention policies in Australia needs to be called to account. Sharing such stories is possibly the most powerful way to do so.
Liana Joy Christensen (online comment)
Hessom Razavi replies:
There are deep wells of empathy available to Australians, if only we are given the opportunity to access them. Stories, as Liana Joy Christensen says, are among the pathways to these wells.
Journalists in denial
I have read with interest Johanna Leggatt’s article ‘The Problem of Belonging’ and her reply to Peter McPhee, and indeed many other pieces written by journalists appalled, like all reasonable persons, by the poor treatment of some of their number on social media platforms. As Leggatt states in her reply, all of us should have the ‘right to do [our] work without death threats or trolling’. I just wish that this sentiment was stretched to include the Victorian premier, the chief health officer, and the much-discussed contact tracers. The media must take some responsibility for the attacks on these people. Throughout the successful second lockdown, the Herald Sun headlines (for example) have been designed to inflame.
The daily press conferences in Melbourne have become characterised by the aggressive, accusatory nature of the questioning, many journalists seeking ‘gotcha’ moments. By contrast, Premier Daniel Andrews has remained calm and polite, tolerating behaviour that would not be accepted in a primary school classroom.
Hectoring may work well with con artists fleeing down alleyways, but it’s not so impressive, or effective, when the subject decides to stand still for as long as it takes. I am not offended by ‘what some journalists extract from conferences and churn into commentary’ – that is predictable. What I dislike is their behaviour during the press conferences. One journalist asked the premier what he was doing for his birthday, a question that started ‘BirthdayGate’ on Twitter, for which the journalist Alex White later apologised. I don’t see this sort of thing as run-of-the-mill reporting. It’s sensationalism at best, political attack at worst.
Public perception is a tricky beast. Journalists wondering how they morphed from truth-seekers into bullies might well consider some different strategies. As Aristotle noted, we are what we do.
Clare Rhoden, Oakleigh South, Vic.
Johanna Leggatt’s excellent piece on social media denunciations and mob tendencies, along with her ABR Podcast conversation covering similar issues, made me wonder how much of our being afraid to stand up to thugs of the left and right – sometimes named, more often anonymous – might stem in part from an Australian provincialism.
For all the much-promoted attempts to ‘decolonise’ our thinking, many an Australian mind, one fears, continues to be colonised by imported modes of thought and practice. (This is perhaps inevitable in a hyper-globalised and hyper-surveilled world: we are all being colonised, at all times.) On an Australian quicksand of identity, permanently unaware of who we are and permanently unable to decide, we are perhaps less willing to make a stand in constructive defence of ideas; too many choose, instead, the default and herd position of (personal) attack and denigration. None of this is healthy in the context of our increasingly and absurdly polarised public debate, and Leggatt is right to express her serious concern.
Speaking of podcasts, goodness knows we have been exposed – many of us far beyond our own level of interest – to wave after wave of Trump analysis over the past four years. The recent ABR Podcast conversation with Timothy Lynch was one of the most incisive and original discussions I have heard on what is an otherwise wearying topic. Refreshingly, at no point did Lynch reach for the lazy clichés or conventional truths about Trump, his supporters, and his impact on the broader world. I’m very much looking forward to hearing from him again.
Luke Stegemann, Palen Creek, QLD
Johanna Leggatt replies:
Luke Stegemann makes an interesting point about provincialism conceivably playing a role in the muck-raking and group-think that Twitter encourages. Perhaps there is a tendency among Australian journalists and writers to look elsewhere for clues as to who we are, what we should believe in, whom we should support. In this respect, one could argue that we can easily become rudderless in our thinking, attaching ourselves to what is modish rather than to what is anchored in a sense of self. I could also imagine there are certain occasions when this Australian ‘quicksand of identity’ might be liberating, as being ‘unaware of who we are’ perhaps gifts the thinking writer with the opportunity for vitality, originality, and a fresh creation, unencumbered by notions of identity. Of course, it might also produce the opposite: a tentativeness and fear that lead to an unwillingness to put one’s head above the parapet and defend freedom of expression.
The aim of reviewing
Nicely written though Declan Fry’s review of After Australia, edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, is, it is so focused on the political content in each story that it never engages with the bigger questions of literature.
Do these stories in this anthology stack up to good writing? What about questions of form? Do the stories ramble on like fraying threads coming apart, or do the authors find a structural beauty that holds them together? In Fry’s review there is not a single critical word that addresses any of the stories’ shortcomings or weaknesses. I’m left wondering, and not only with this piece, what is the aim of reviewing?
Clint Caward (online comment)
Declan Fry replies:
It is quite an invitation, being asked to comment on not only your own review, but the aims of reviewing itself. I’ll try. Literacy is a political privilege; without it, you or I would not be having this exchange in the first place. So I fail to see how politics is separable from ‘the bigger questions of literature’. But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. You want to know why I didn’t pounce on perceived stylistic mishaps or pen paeans to ‘good writing’. The reason is simple: awarding stars or admonishments is the most mediocre type of hack work going. This is not Kirkus Reviews, and I am not here to write PR shill (or hatchet jobs telling authors where to get off, as you seem to have wished). My hope is that criticism offers something the reader can’t get from the book itself – a reflection, an overview, a consideration. A commentary of its own.
Hugh White’s review of Geoff Raby’s book China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order provides an excellent overview of a work that should be read by Australians and Americans.
China has emerged as a great power, but a regional one. China has neighbours on its borders – fourteen of them. Many of them are not fond of the Chinese. China knows this. Raby’s book brings some sanity and much needed honesty to the subject of China’s aspirations. Basically, it wants the United States out of East Asia. China seeks to create what the Japanese failed to do in the late-1930s: the East Asian Prosperity Sphere. It is getting closer to attaining this goal every day.
Australia should act much more independently. Sure, it needs America, but it also needs China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison must stop mimicking the US leadership. It is time for Australia to develop and promote its own national interests, whether America or China likes it or not. If Australia, as in the 1930s, refuses to create and embrace its own agenda and policies for Asia, it may find itself highly vulnerable should the East Asian situation grow ominous. A nation of twenty-six million people may become very isolated in a region comprising four and a half billion Asians.
Geoff Raby’s book basically asks Australians, ‘Are we doing what is right for Australia and its future?’ If the answer is no, the nation’s leadership needs to start creating a new blueprint for the country’s future in a region that is in many respects undergoing a revolution.
Randall Doyle (online comment)