Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977-2005, by Robert Manne

This book is a collection of Robert Manne’s essays and newspaper columns. Old newspaper columns usually come across as very stale and in a lot of cases irrelevant – the facts they chronicle are well past their use-by date, the predictions and opinions they offer are wildly off beam. It is a testament to Robert Manne’s brilliance that everything in this book is still readable, enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I concur heartily with the survey findings on the back of the book: he is Australia’s leading intellectual.

My only quibble with Mr Manne is his essay on pornography. In essence he argues that pornography creates crime, even going so far as to say that Ted Bundy was in part created by the pornography that he was obsessed with. I think pornography – let’s say the worst type of pornography – is a projection of an already sick mind. I don’t think pornography creates sick minds.

The reason for the brilliance of his writing is, ironically, its very plainness. He’s never trying to impress with smart word play or by trying to show how he has insights that the reader could never come up with themselves. This almost bland style shows his great intellectual honesty.
Most of the essays in this collection cover the 90s and up to the present. You’ll find your memory of many events you’d forgotten pleasantly jogged. Remember the Demidenko affair? There is an excerpt from Manne’s book on the subject.

The two Quarterly essays are also reprinted in full. The Sending Them Home essay should be mandatory reading for all Australians. One is still staggered at the cruelty of our detention regime. Here’s a good quote:

‘During the fourth wave, the network of immigration detention centres constituted, in our opinion, the most inhumane and destructive quasi-penal institutions in Australia’s post-federation history – where the inmates were treated more harshly than in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps at Cowra, or the wartime internment camps at Hay and Tatura for German (often Jewish) and Italian aliens transported here from Britain during the early part of the Second World War, or even than in the worst of the inter-war Aboriginal internment settlements, like Queensland’s Palm Island or Moore River in Western Australia.’

I can understand the Howard Government’s political opportunism in demonising refugees. Okay, so it works. Scare the people and get some votes. But what I don’t get is just the plain cruelty. Like the case of the five year old Shayan Badraie. He witnessed numerous riots and suicide attempts. It turned him into a basket case. When the responsible Minister, Phillip Ruddock was interviewed on the 7.30 Report, he referred twice to the boy as ‘it’. Against advice, they continually sent the boy back into bad detention centre environments. Again, you wonder what political advantage is to be got from treating children in such a manner?

For students of politics and Australian culture, this is an indispensable book.

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