November 25th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CLIMATE CHANGE: An appeal to reason: the economics and politics of climate change

EDITORIAL: Water infrastructure needed, not gimmicks

AUSTRALIA'S DROUGHT: COAG's free trade in water threatens farmers

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard's loyalty to U.S. faces severe test

UNITED STATES: U.S. voter backlash against Bush's Iraq war

IRAQ WAR: Bush runs out of options

THE ECONOMY: Wishful thinking about agriculture, manufacturing

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Taped calls incriminate ex-premier, minister

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Sinister side to lunatic fringe / The gentle art of blackening reputations / Faces of vulnerability / The old refrain?

HUMAN CLONING: Patterson's curse - the Frankenbunny

Lies, cowardice and cloning (letter)

Bouquet and brickbat for News Weekly (letter)

Optional preferential voting rejected (letter)

Greenhouse superstitions (letter)

Using children as spies (letter)

BOOKS: INSIDE THE ASYLUM: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse Than You Think, by Jed Babbin

BOOKS: THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, by Antony Beevor

Books promotion page

Sinister side to lunatic fringe / The gentle art of blackening reputations / Faces of vulnerability / The old refrain?

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, November 25, 2006
Sinister side to lunatic fringe

The terrorist mentality and the terrorist culture, we are starting to realise, are spreading into more and more parts of our social and private lives. The website, the anonymous phone call, a poisoned letter - all are starting to play a major role in the political underworld of our country.

I hadn't had one of these for many a year - since the PLO, Ustashe and extreme right-wingers from Queensland used to ply their obscene trade. But I recently received one - an anonymous phone call - my first for years. Threatening, and anti-Semitic. The hero hung up, of course, when pressed for his name.

I checked with my editor - who expressed disgust, but said it was not unusual for News Weekly to be phoned by conspiracy theorists, or to be mailed racist tracts (with no apparent author or return address).

The inevitable end of this new era of the desperate and the dysfunctional as public actors, and random assassins, will be a punitive, wide-ranging official clamp-down: put the lunatics back in their boxes.


The gentle art of blackening reputations

To return to a theme introduced an issue or two ago - that of obituaries: the situation in one of my original examples, England, and in the United States and Europe, seems to be steadily deteriorating. Australia, overall, has performed far better, but there are disturbing signs that our diarists and reviewers are starting to go downmarket to join the other countries. Incidentally, my second example was of an English obituary now two years old.

A friend and I, who had both lived in Britain and kept in close touch with people and places, have had more and more risible conversations as the obituaries of various characters turn up. Things aren't what they were.

The London Times used to be a model for obituaries - and, I thought, reviews - for many years. Thus, if anyone likes to look up the Times obituary on the Croatian wartime dictator Ante Pavelic, after his demise in Paraguay - having served a local dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, as special adviser on advanced interrogation methods - they will read an entirely factual, thorough, deadpan account of that man's life and career. Such forms of reportage are difficult to carry off, but enviable.

Alas, examples of the genre are being pushed out by idealisation, denigration, or titillation. The Americans and Europeans are, on balance, as bad, or worse.

I'll just mention the case of Iris Murdoch, the noted novelist and philosopher. She used to drink with a few friends at a little pub I frequented in North Oxford. She was a quiet, mousy woman, without side, who would enjoy a beer or two before lunch. Observers would never have guessed that she was a distinguished novelist and philosopher. She was shy, but a sympathetic figure.

Upon her death, a most extraordinary, and I think disgusting, public post-mortem broke out. She had suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in her later years - her husband wrote frequently, and long, of the strains he had endured, the miseries she had suffered. Others, too, rushed in, with stories of bohemian squalor, soiled underclothing lying around; and then others would start rabbiting on with reflections on promiscuity, infidelity, and so on. And that, in quality British papers and magazines! I could only feel sorry for that poor woman, who could not speak up for herself. But this is becoming the norm.

The lives of celebrities have become a journalistic fetish, so there may be three or four obituaries of the same person. The trouble, too often, is that they may all be wrong, but they can't all be right. Sycophancy and polemic - political or cultural - have intruded. Hence my earlier admonition to read with a grain of salt.

Then there are the attacks on people like Mother Teresa, Lady Di and co., on Bill Clinton, and the Bushes. All fair game, apparently. In essence, varieties of assassination.

As I have said, Australian obits are still pretty stable. I understand that those of the late Professor Rufus Davis, which I have not yet seen, do him full justice for his variety of talents and his lifelong advocacy of liberal constitutional democracy, the rule of law, the idea of the university, and the prerequisites for an education in politics that would be worth having. In an increasingly hostile environment, he never resiled from these values.

Melbourne's Herald Sun is actually the best for obits, if these are to your taste. The subjects are ordinary people, who have had interesting lives, triumphed over adversity, served their community or church, and been admired for it. The obits are pieces of love, or of fond remembrance. They are, in fact, improving moral tales, rather like the New Year and Queen's Birthday honours, when ordinary people get a gong.

Future social historians will find these obits a rich lode, for they are about people's societies, occupations, and general circumstances. Whereas, I suspect that obits of pollies, academics, and entertainers may yield small pickings.


Faces of vulnerability

I have, to coin a phrase, been hors de combat over the past couple of months, so, while the Straws in the Wind column has managed to turn up most times, I'm afraid I lost a few letters.

One, from a lady on aged care, I remember clearly. I think she mistook my strictures about children - middle-aged "children" - who, often (quite often) dump their parents in nursing homes, rarely visit them and don't really want to know how they are making out. For then these inmates' children might have to do something.

My correspondent cited an example of trying to keep a very old, very sick, much-beloved parent at home - and the enormous, and ultimately devastating strain that it can impose on the carer, and the carer's family. Of course, people who have undertaken such sustained self-sacrifice go far beyond the call of duty and obligation. They would be the last to invite criticism - indeed, they display qualities which few of us possess.

No, I was operating at the other end of the spectrum. Considering we are just beginning to officially learn that childcare units are not always as their advocates describe, so do we continue to run into aged care scandals. These two in fact have a lot in common.

When evidence of gross neglect, or ill treatment, of old people in institutions is turned up, the relatives express anger and horror and demand to know why weren't they told. How could they have known?

The answer is, that they could have known - most likely would have known - if they had regularly visited their relatives. They'd soon work it out. But of course they wouldn't be told by the staff - unless the latter were prepared to risk their jobs. For the government might withdraw its certification of the institution.

When the government does this, or is preparing to do this, a strange metamorphosis often occurs on the part of the angry relatives. They call for the owners to be given another chance; they swear by various staff members; and are satisfied the baddies are really just a minority, so ... keep the old folk there.

I know it is hard to find places for "high care", and it can be traumatic to relocate and split up groups of old people; but quite often it needs to be done, and is what the parent wants. But, as we know, a lot of relatives are ... too busy.

We are beginning to witness similar melodramas with effective or pernicious childcare centres or practices. It is only by accident that much of this neglect or ill treatment going on in childcare situations comes out.

For very often the children are too young to speak up and, very often, the busy mother doesn't want to hear. It would require relocating her child or, horror of horrors, putting her job on hold for a time. So discovering the truth is quite possibly a rare outcome.

So, after the usual shock-horror anger "Why wasn't I told?"/"How could I know?" routine, the parent becomes the defender of the often quite defective "caring" institutions. "It just needs a few changes!" they cry. "Don't close it down!"

I'm afraid this is now the Me generation, or the Us Versus Them generation - "Them" being at the bottom, either young and defenceless, or old and vulnerable.

Our media have a lot of stories if they want to run with them; but they seldom do, do they?


The old refrain?

Looking at the regrouping of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate after the mid-term elections, there is much that has changed and a lot that remains the same. The exit strategy in Iraq (and not only Iraq) - a time limit to be imposed upon the Iraqi political class for taking full control of their destiny, and major changes in Coalition strategy, and tactics - were all on the cards anyway.

The new people in Congress, etc, are interesting. As Gerard Henderson - amid frantic interruptions from the ABC's Barry Cassidy's Insiders panel - informed us, there are many new conservative Democrats; few "cut-and-run" politicians have been elected.

The incumbent Democrat radicals who were already there have had to greatly moderate their language. A bipartisan Middle East policy seems likely, as the Americans face an extremely serious situation, one which was shaping up long before George W. Bush arrived.
Gore Vidal

Someone like Gore Vidal would say that the two American parties have, since the 1830s, been continually running essentially similar policies - aggressive capitalism, divvying up the patronage and making sure, as they have since 1830, that no new party emerges, or at least survives.

I'm reminded of this, when surveying what seems to be transpiring in the lead-up to the November 25 Victorian state election, to take but one example.

There, the introduction of proportional representation for electing Upper House members has made it quite likely that the Greens, with their extreme social policies ("attitudes" is the appropriate word), can impose these policies on an unwilling electorate by playing off Liberals against Labor (I'm not referring to genuine environmental policies here).

Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks offered a preference deal with opposition Liberal leader Ted Baillieu to shut out the Greens - partly in order to avoid chaos in the Upper House.

But Baillieu appeared to refuse, preferring for his own party to swap preference with the Greens. For they and he have the same policies: on gay marriage, divorce on demand, embryonic stem-cell experimentation and the like.

This is no ordinary Liberal Party; it is an inner-city yuppie rump. Baillieu is being advised by federal Liberal backbencher Petro Georgio and (if he is to be believed) former premier Jeff Kennett. I'm sure Howard and Costello see Labor's Steve Bracks, by contrast, as a tower of normality!

As to Family First, which has limited resources and which encounters non-stop anti-religious propaganda from most of our journos, it can only succeed at this point by a flow of preferences from someone else.

But, the major parties don't want to know them any more than they did Pauline Hanson. Did I hear Gore Vidal say, "Fancy that!"

- Max Teichmann.

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