Don Watson: Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating

Don Watson’s biography Recollections of a Bleeding Heart is the first biography that I have read since reading David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life in 1995 (about the same time that society collapsed). And what a magnificent segue that it is into the core of things that matter. And even if you aren’t a Labor person or aren’t interested in the laws and institutions that govern you (as if intellectual ‘sectarianism’ ever meant freedom of thought) then it is still worth understanding how people with national political responsibilities have thought. So many younger Australians have been margianalised within a post-industrial waste-land-country named ‘Utopia’; a place that you may migrate to when you have all but given up.

But even the most trite Libertarian or intellectually languid Anarchist ought to engage with the body of knowledge that has been used to run this country for the past 100 years (for better of worse) otherwise how do we know what the alternatives are? It is all too easy to fight scarecrows and dig holes for the sake of justifying an attenuated world view. It is also easy to be politically superior whilst being politically inept.

The only real way to change things is through power but first you have to know what power looks like and then you have to understand how to gain it. Standing on the outer yelling at the field never really changed the main game. Real power is within responsibility and responsibility and power have many contradictions (as all human political and economic systems always have). Understanding and managing contradictions is called judgement and judgement is gained through the experience of knowing (if not always accepting) that we are all imperfect humans.

Don Watson writes like a journalist but thinks like an historian. He writes well; better than most historians who often have difficulty with evocative writing. His writing is self-effacing, non-partisan, humorous, voyeuristic and endearing. He constructs Keating as a complex and contradictory man who worked within an even more complex and contradictory system. He was human and suffered as we all do within a society where no one ever really has the individual agency to navigate through it with ones self-esteem and intellect entirely in tact.

I suppose that I, along with most social democrat Labor people, believe that the legitimacy of a democracy is held with the individual citizen. But even in terms of this most basic democratic responsibility, most Australian’s aren’t willing to take the intellectual challenge.

It is ‘easier’ to imbue the language of self-interested recalcitrant subversion (like talk back radio) and live a life of disgruntled gut wrenching personal internal contradictions (like huge personal debt and staccato your illinformed political opinions). It is not that Australia does not have good leaders is that who would want to lead Australians?

Australians didn’t deserve a visionary like Keating but we perhaps do deserve John Howard. Howard is a Liberal ‘leader’ that is being led by the Australian people to the grave yard of personal debt, racial intolerance, and low national self esteem. Australia is becoming a Libertarian, poorly educated nation of consumers without the intellectual will or esteem to protect and advance our national democratic inheritance.

Keating may have got things wrong but at least he could see beyond the iron cage of Utopian political (and consumer) fantasy. If you are digging a hole then the best way out is to stop digging. Throw away the credit card. Throw away the political fantasies. The social realist school will one day take its revenge because narrow Utopian thought (like market-based fantasies) are the most contradictory systems of them all. Keep it real or keep digging.

2 Replies to “Don Watson: Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating”

  1. Keatings family ran an accounting business in Riverstone, NSW. Ask the locals what they make of their business practices… Riverstone is a kind of industrial zone where motor mechanics, motor trimmers and railway lines meet. Grease erased grass and milkbars churned out hamburgers by the score…

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