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On the 3rd October, John Howard delivered a speech at the 50th anniversary of Quadrant magazine. In the company of such ‘balanced and objective’ luminaries as Paddy McGuinness who masquerades as a “commentator”, Howard launched into a tirade that built on the themes developed earlier in the week by his Minister for Education. He declared that Australian history was in danger of being highjacked by a left leaning, communist sympathising “intelligentsia”. This “black armband” brigade who are teaching our kids are possessed, if we believe Howard, by anti-Australian, anti-American, anti-traditional values and probably hold pro-terrorist sympathies.
Howard was effusive in his praise for Quadrant, which he says had a role “in the defining global struggle of the 20th century”. He singles out Paddy McGuinness for special praise, noting “the way he has carried on the Quadrant tradition of fine scholarship with a sceptical, questioning eye for cant, hypocrisy and moral vanity”. He said that Quadrant would need to continue its fight because something he calls “the soft left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australian universities, by virtue of its long march through the institutions”. The use of this turn of phrase is a particular code for many in the audience that night.
Howard finds himself on a roll. Unable to break from his speechwriter’s script he plods on spewing out his hateful bile against anyone who would question the dominance or power of the ultraconservative, fundamentalist far right. Seemingly stuck in the 1950’s Cold War time warp he pines for, Howard rants and rails against those who question the US-Australian alliance and anyone who has asked us to stop and pause and reflect on what has happening in far away nations in wars that were never ours. Closer to home he derides those who challenge the colonialist “terra nullius” view of our continent, something Howard says is “… close to my heart”. He then pauses for breath and repeats the words of his scriptwriter. However, he fails to note the flaw in his speechwriter’s logic.
The writer of this address had been briefed, no doubt, to make sure this speech contained a raft of derogatory references to those who had concerns about the current political climate and who are referred to in the speech as “the enemies [of] liberal democracy”. The speechwriter, no doubt trying to impress his or her audience via Howard, decides that a quote from George Orwell taken from “Notes on Nationalism” written in 1945, will suffice to make their point.
Howard told his audience that anyone who opposes such things as the illegal wars in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, free and unbridled capital flows and excesses, ultraconservative Cold War values and the policies of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, belong to “the intelligentsia”. This group, Howard infers, probably also believe in Santa Claus and the fairies. Quoting Orwell, Howard remarks, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool”. In short, anyone who does not hold the same worldview and opinions, on all matters, as he and the Quadrant coterie do, is more than a fool. However, Howard shows his ignorance when it comes to history and in particular, the history and context in which Orwell wrote and as usual, allows the twist of logic to suit his own ends.
Orwell was a staunch and unrepentant anti-communist. He declared himself a patriot but in “Notes on Nationalism” he sets about to argue that the “intelligentsia” had lost touch with the real world. While his patriotism was about “My country - right or left”, the leftist intelligentsia he described was “… inseparable from the desire for power.”
Orwell argued that the “left” and in particular the educated, upper class left, had lost touch with reality. He argued that while they were prepared to criticise inhumane acts by their own nation they were unprepared to criticise but perhaps even willing to support, acts committed by the communist and fascist regimes that, at the time, England was at war with.
However, what Orwell, and therefore Howard, was unwilling admit, was that the support of the Nazi and fascist regimes given by the upper classes – regardless of left or right - was, in fact, a practical matter of never letting a wealth creating opportunity pass by. Their acceptance of the Nazi and fascist atrocities were never related to moral, ethical or even, for that matter, political reasons but were about the practicalities of capital accumulation. For this reason, some of the so-called “intelligentsia” were unwilling to criticise that which kept them fed. For others it was, as Orwell points out but which Howard forgot to mention, a case of timely forgetfulness. Or to use another Orwell term, sending those inconvenient facts down the “memory hole”.
Orwell wrote in his essay “probably the truth is discoverable, but facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion”. He goes on to note that the intelligentsia are “often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world”. He writes that for those who are more concerned with endless arguments and debate and taking the “high moral ground”, there is no defeat – even when it smacks them between the eyes. Think here of the denial of Aboriginal massacres, the debacle in Iraq, the false claims about asylum seekers and the so-called “anti-terrorism” laws that might have made Mussolini and Hitler blush with jealousy.
Orwell, consumed by his distain for that which he felt had abandoned him – those who he saw as unfaithful to his country - changed his stripes in the later part of his life. He felt abandoned by them because, as he writes, they, like Howard’s ilk, have an “indifference to reality”. He notes “actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians - which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side”.
John Howard, our Prime Minister, has the temerity to stand up in front of an audience made up of rabid right wing ideologues and devotees and accuse the “left” of being the “intelligentsia”. While I am not a regular Quadrant reader, I have read some of the material it has published over the years. What I have found is that the fundamentalist cheerleading that masquerades, as Howard put it, “a great literary journal” is exactly what Orwell described and decried in his essay.
Howard and his cheer squad like nothing more than to put down and dismiss those that see through their lies, hair splitting arguments and propaganda. They would do themselves well to own up to their own dystopian view of the world and realise that in the real world of “ordinary men” outside their, for now, safe and secure, barricaded, silver lined enclaves, life is far from rosy and utopian. Unfortunately, as Orwell wrote some 60 years ago, John Howard and the Quadrant cheer squad, “more probably feel their own version was what happened in the sight of God and that one is justified in rearranging the records accordingly” (italics in original).