Non Fiction

Even the name is confusing: think of it as Belgian Congo/Zaire/Congo DRC to avoid confusing it with the Republic of Congo/Congo Brazzaville across the river. Officially, the name is Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC – so you could roll out the usually accurate cliché that any country with ‘Democratic’ in the name definitely isn’t that. In fact, the DRC had an election a few years back which was reasonably democratic and certainly inspired an impressive voter rollout.

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‘Our age,’ begins the epigraph to Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy, ‘is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.’ This disarming quote from French writer Julien Benda dates back to 1927; how little has changed in a century. Just one generation after the triumphant ‘end of history’ – and notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, fleetingly referenced here – Western democratic societies are prey to institutional decline, increasing distrust, violence, and hatred.

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The question of the relationship of the biographer to their subject is a fascinating one. Kath Jordan is frank about her long and intimate friendship with Veronica Brady as she recounts the way this book came into being. In a preface, she remembers celebrating with a friend the High Court’s rejection of Western Australia’s challenge to its Mabo native title decision, in March 1995. Thinking of Brady’s active involvement in Aboriginal rights issues, the two decided that they would write her biography. Brady gave her consent to the idea – although there is no sense that she was closely involved with the project – and what became the unexpectedly long gestation of Larrikin Angel was eventually begun, with only one author.

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Scarcely a week passes without reference in the media to Aboriginal land rights. The tone of the reporting varies from the outraged indignation of those who see their rights to exploit and control land being curtailed, through eloquent pleas for simple justice, to forceful demands for the return of land which was illegally acquired. Comment is not confined to Australia: the rights of indigenous peoples are matters for comment in international forums such as the United Nations and the World Council for Indigenous Peoples. Yet despite this coverage ignorance, prejudice and paternalism abound. For this reason, a comprehensive volume on land rights Australia-wide is welcome.

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When Malcom Fraser was prime minister, he was generally thought of as a hard and ruthless man of the right. In part this was because of the role he played in the removal of Gough Whitlam; in part because of his fiscal prudence; in part because of his orthodox Cold War foreign policy. Following his defeat in 1983, an alternative picture of Fraser gradually emerged. Under Labor, Australia embarked upon a program of economic rationalist reform. For his failure to anticipate this programme – to be wise or, as some would say, unwise before the event – Fraser was caricatured, especially by his former political friends, as a do-nothing prime minister. His time in office was ridiculed as Seven Wasted Years. After 1996 Fraser became one of the most influential critics of John Howard’s new brand of populist conservatism. The portrait of him was once more redrawn. The left saw him as a principled humanitarian; the right as an incorrigible Wet.

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It is hard to imagine that any reader of the text of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be unmoved by the nobility of its aspirations. Born of the determination that human beings would never again have to suffer the oppressions and indignities that reached so hideous a climax in the events of World War II, it promises a world in which all people can enjoy a range of fundamental freedoms in peace and harmony. To observe that the promise has not been kept is a patent under-statement. Even in the most advanced democracies, where notions of universal human rights are foundational, there is a sense of crisis. Here in Australia, as the Victorian government moves to institute a bill of rights, people of responsibility and integrity are forced to confront what appears to be a systemic disregard for human rights by the federal government in its treatment of asylum seekers.

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With the possible exception of Jean Baudrillard or Anthony Giddens, it is difficult to think of a contemporary sociologist who has rivalled the international intellectual standing, as well as global fame, of the late Zygmunt Bauman. In his subtle, worldly intelligence, his interdisciplinary engagement, and his poetic cast of mind, Bauman stands out as one of the most influential social thinkers of our time. A distinguished heir to the tradition of radical Marxist criticism, his writings tracked the political contradictions, cultural pressures, and emotional torments of modernity with a uniquely agile understanding. With his scathing critical pen and brilliant socio logical investigations, Bauman unearthed major institutional transformations in capitalism, culture, and communication in a language that disdained all academic boundaries, crossing effortlessly from Marx to mobile phones, from Gramsci to globalisation, and from postmodernism to the privatisation of prisons.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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To an older generation of Australian poetry readers, David Campbell (1915–79) was perhaps the best-loved poet of Douglas Stewart’s post-World War II ‘Red Page’, appearing there with what would become iconic poems of the new Bulletin school like ‘Windy Gap’, ‘Who Points the Swallow’, and ‘Men in Green’. Despite his frequent publication in that heritage venue, Campbell published his first collection, Speak with the Sun (1949), in England with Chatto & Windus, through the good offices of his Cambridge mentor E.M.W. Tillyard. After that, he joined the ancien A&R régime of poets like Rosemary Dobson, R.D. FitzGerald, Francis Webb, James McAuley, and Judith Wright, who took up much of the middle ground of Australian poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. A lifelong friend and supporter of Campbell, Stewart was also influential in this group’s prominence, along with Beatrice Davis, his editorial co-adviser at Angus & Robertson.

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In 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes for president of the United States than Donald Trump. Despite this sizeable margin, Clinton was not elected. The reason was the electoral college, a method for picking presidents that emerged as an ‘eleventh-hour compromise’ at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 and that has never been abolished.

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