La Trobe University Press

It takes genuine courage to attempt a synoptic history of India and considerable skill to abridge the story of more than five thousand years into a book of fewer than three hundred pages. For a start, the evidence we have for what occurred during the first forty centuries is scarce and uneven. Archaeologists have unearthed planned towns, figurines, seals, pots, and tools that attest to the existence of a sprawling and successful society flourishing in the Indus Valley from around 3300 BCE until 1300 BCE. But as John Zubrzycki explains in this clever book, we know little if anything about how this Harappan civilisation was ruled or organised, partly because its script has not been deciphered and partly because no buildings akin to palaces or temples have yet been found.

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The Red Queen’s impossible rule offers a striking allegory of the biographer’s dilemma. While your subject is still alive, it seems reasonable to get to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. In this way you might be better able to understand their private and intimate worlds. If your subject is a writer, you might become more confident in your ability to weave closer correspondences between their life and work. But if you then become privy to their secrets, and perhaps even come to love them as a dear friend, it becomes almost impossible to write about them dispassionately: to ‘cut’ them with your knife and fork.

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Georgina Arnott’s 2016 biography The Unknown Judith Wright was an absorbing exercise in discovering the facets of Judith Wright’s early life and formative experience that were unknown, hidden, or forgotten, by biographers as well as by Wright herself. It was a revealing study of a writer who had a love-fear relationship with the projects of biography and autobiography. In the 1950s, Wright wrote loving, admiring histories of her pioneering family, but in her autobiography, Half a Lifetime, published in 1999, the year before her death, she began: ‘Autobiography is not what I want to write.’ There were good reasons for this. There were the formal challenges of life writing – the person writing is not the person written about – but also what Wright had discovered, in her archival research for her rewriting of her family history, about her Wyndham colonial ancestors’ role in Aboriginal dispossession, and violence.

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The title of this book, Guilty Pigs, is a reference to the medieval practice of bringing animals and insects to trial and/or punishing them for their conduct, such as killing humans, or destroying orchards, crops, and vineyards, or, in one case, chewing the records of ecclesiastical proceedings. The behaviour of the animal or insect determined whether proceedings were brought in secular or ecclesiastical jurisdictions. A charge of homicide would be initiated in secular tribunals, where domesticated animals such as pigs, cows, and horses were tried and punished, invariably by pronouncement of the death penalty. When animals and insects such as rats, mice, locusts, and weevils invaded houses, fields, or orchards, proceedings were brought in ecclesiastical courts, which eschewed the death penalty, instead excommunicating the hapless defendant.

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Moral certitude, wrong-headedness, and ignorance inform what passes for debate about China in Australia today. There is so much grandiose proselytising born out of flawed history and tired tropes. Considering how ill-informed the most prominent Australian commentators are about China, it’s quite a feat that they’re often more deceived about their own nation.

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We routinely think of the past as a subtext of the present, but in The Women of Little Lon Barbara Minchinton flips this around. She aims not only to ‘dismantle the myths and counter misinformation and deliberate distortions’ about sex workers in nineteenth-century Melbourne, but – in an explicitly #MeToo context – to ‘reduce the stigma attached to the work today’ while heightening our ‘understanding of and respect for the lives of all sex workers’.

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During the early 1980s, in a series of attacks on the Family Court in Sydney, a judge was shot dead outside his home, while bombs killed another judge’s wife and injured a third judge and his children as they slept. The man behind these and other attacks, Leonard Warwick, was involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife over the care of their young daughter, but it would be thirty-five years before the crimes were solved and he was convicted of three murders and the bombings. Media commentators, meanwhile, wondered what had driven the culprit to such violence. Elizabeth Evatt, the court’s then chief justice, described the media’s response: ‘They said, “The Court has been bombed, what’s wrong with the Court?”’

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As readers of her two volumes of memoirs will know, Sheila Fitzpatrick trained at the University of Melbourne until departing for Oxford in 1964 to pursue doctoral research on the history of the Soviet Union. That took her to Moscow, where she gained access to Soviet archives. Fitzpatrick would make her name as an archival historian, in contrast to earlier Western scholars who relied, both of necessity and by inclination, on other sources; she showed remarkable ingenuity in using the officially sanctioned records.

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Open Minds: Academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone with Jade Roberts

by
April 2021, no. 430

Across the Anglosphere, academic freedom is in crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from reading conservative newspapers and listening to right-wing politicians. Boris Johnson’s government, concerned about ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses’, recently announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ for British universities. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on campus, describing it as a ‘historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege’. In February 2021, the Australian government amended higher education legislation to redefine academic freedom, amid shrill calls from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) about the ‘free speech crisis at Australia’s universities’.

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Disaster movies tend to follow a similar arc. Our band of heroes not only has to survive flames engulfing the skyscraper or sea water flooding the cruise liner, but must also triumph over the calculated selfishness of others who are also scrambling for salvation. The implication is that, with few exceptions, Thomas Hobbes was right. Amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes declared that our natural human condition is a war of all against all, and that order can only be secured by a powerful ruler, a Leviathan, that keeps our naked urges in check. The social contract of considerate behaviour and thoughtfulness towards others is a thin veneer. Under pressure it peels away, and we are soon at one another’s throats in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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