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.

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Quarterly Essay David Malouf

What a comendable addition the Quarterly Essay is to the national debate. It is refreshing to engage with larger Australian discussions after floundering in the intellectual vacuum of ‘the global’for such a long time. The problem with much discourse on ‘the global’ is that it is largely dismissive of national discussions. ‘The national’ is seen as the complicit pariah whilst all the answers to (and causes of) the world’s ills are contained within the utopian vacuum called ?the global?. All social movement, such as the Civil Rights movement in the US, have had utopian elements, but one wonders how long one can be utopian for? The anti-corporate-globalisation movement was far too utopian and I wonder where next for this crucial social movement?

The utopian is not enduring (it soon turns into hell ie. Lord of the Flies) and how long does it take the average utopian to undertake a reality check (kill Piggy)? The reality check is that Australians live in one of the most enduring and stable democracies in the world. This, as David Malouf points out, is because of the Westminster system and the legacy of our British inheritance (for better or worse). It is going to take a little bit more than a trade agreement or ?sectarian? globalisation discourse before Australia disappears into the anlienting vacuum of the global (either corporate or civic). To take ‘the national’ out of the discussion of ‘the global’ is like playing football without a football oval. It is an intellectual version of year zero, a post-industrial Pol Pot for the Social Sciences.

I suppose that it is much easier to name and blame your ‘enemy’ than it is to understand them. As Owen Harris from the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies claims, the reason that there are clashes during this present period of ‘globalisation’ is perhaps because people do not understand it. It is largely equivocation.

Anyway, David Malouf’s essay Made in England is far too brief and does not do justice to the topic. But it is optimistic and honest; it is worldly as well as emanating from an older Australia that I can only imagine. This older Australia seems smaller, homogenous, narrowly globally networked and not well rounded. It is an industrial Australia, a pre information society Australia, a middle brow Australia. It is vapid and oblate Australia and one that I am glad that we left behind for a much more complex and culturally topographical (if unfair) Australia. It is an historically energetic essay but it is forgettable. It is well trodden ground; perhaps our history story telling parallels our democratic history; unreflective and secure. Malouf’s comparisons to the United States in terms of slavery and convicts is insightful (in terms of articulating the great hypocracy at the centre of American dictums such as ‘freedom’).

And I come away from the essay a little wiser as to who I am in the culture and language that is my country. Sure I could imagine another country such as ‘the global’ but then I would lose my culture and lose my identity. No one lives in the global, it is an imaginary place. The world is full of contradictions and inefficiencies and contingent centres of power. Napoleon called Britain (during the last great period of free trade and globalisation) a nation of shop keepers. So too is Australia. A nation of petit bourgeois ‘Bo Bos’ (bourgeois bohemians) imagining a much more engaging and rugged past. This is the invention of a national tradition. And shop keepers don’t talk about ‘the national’ that much because ‘the national’ is, in the old world of real politiks, the enemy of the shop keeping class (ie. invasive taxation and work place laws). Shop keeper radicals talk about the global because the global isn’t that much bigger than the doorstep that is swept each day.