Monday, February 22, 2010

David Burchell, and pontificating portentous prattling spells Delphic Oracle doom for Garrett ...

(Above: and what connection does the emperor Tiberius have to Chairman Rudd's government? Read on, because slowly you will come to understand that perhaps only Caligula was worse at government than Rudd and Whitlam).

Every so often it's tremendous fun to drop in on the portentous pontificating of David Burchell.

It's one thing to think that Peter Garrett is a wash out as a minister, but who would think of heading a column about him A modern Moses with beliefs set in stone?

Especially as Garrett's beliefs are clearly not set in stone, or even in a nice garnet ring.

And better yet, then lead off with contemplation of Europe heading into world war one as an ornate, roundabout way to consider Garret and his home insulation program?

Perhaps the most beautiful and disturbing meditation ever voiced on the tragic character of modern politics, Politics as a Vocation, was delivered almost a century ago in another world from ours, among the bare whitewashed walls, wide-eyed Byzantine icons, slender Moorish windows and dusty sunbeams of the University of Munich, then consumed in the death-throes of World War I. Pressing on the great sociologist Max Weber's heart as he spoke was an agonised awareness of the great catastrophe already unfolding in Germany: the great tragic ballet in which the far Left and the far Right, locked in their fatal dance of mutual hatred, dragged the entire civilisation of Europe down into the flames.

Dear lord. Move over Max Weber. Surely the most bizarre, surreal and disturbing meditation ever delivered on the tragic character of modern politics now belongs to David Burchell. Because somehow Burchell manages to conflate incompetence with absolutist ideology, and Garrett's attempt at a quiet, easy life, gone markedly wrong, with the visions of the sermon on the mount or Moses' tablets:

Attempting to understand why so many people were willing to draw Europe into the abyss for the sake of imagined utopias they didn't seriously believe in, Weber was moved to compare the visionaries of his day to the early followers of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount or Moses' tablets, believers in an absolute ethic that brooks no compromise and focuses only on ultimate ends. To the followers of this creed, "if an action of good intent leads to bad results", the responsibility must lie with the world, or with the stupidity of others.

Bugger me dead. It's only a home insulation scheme, not armageddon or the four horsemen of the apocalypse, though you might not think that if you were one of the installers killed or the owners of houses burned down, but which you might certainly think if you happened to be one of the millions killed as Europe was drawn into the abyss.

Well out of this tangled weave of incredibly absurd nonsense, Burchell is slowly making his way to a pontificating point:

By contrast, Weber suggested, mature political leaders have to be content with an ethic of responsibility, one that takes into account the "average deficiencies of people" and holds itself responsible for its mistakes.

What a tortured path to reach the concept of ministerial responsibility, and here we're not talking about Susan Renouf turning out for a TV advertising campaign for bed sheets while hubbie Andrew Peacock was a minister. No, we're not even talking about Michael MacKellar's minsterial impropriety in relation to the importation of a colour television set (and if you want a handy list of ministerial resignations and dismissal in Australian politics since 1901, you can find it here).

But back to Burchett, who is apparently having trouble simply saying that Garrett should resign, and instead prefers to scribble a column shrouded in life's moral mist:

At our best we may manage to combine both ethics, so that the grand cause and the steps along its way are equally visible to us. Most often, though, the final goal is shrouded in life's moral mist.

But then things get even more dire:

Watching Environment Minister Peter Garrett's other-worldly television performances last week amid the dying fall of the government's home insulation program, I found Weber leaping to my mind.

Weber leaping to mind? As opposed to say the lyrics of Midnight Oil? What apocalyptic beasts stalk Burchell's mind?

Here, after all, is the minister who best lays claim to our contemporary Sermon on the Mount: the preservation of the planet, seen as the overarching political good. Here is a man who incarnates the notion that a good conscience can overcome all political ills; the conviction that "from good only comes good, but from evil only evil follows", in Weber's words.

Well after reading this kind of elegant elevated blather - because surely, if anything is to be said, it's that Garrett has become a time server, and an inept one at that - it seemed to me that actually Burchell must be writing about himself. Remembering that he endlessly rabbits on about golden ages and golden warriors and yearns for ancient more seemly times, compared to the age of lead in which we live, and so clutches to his bosom a grandiloquent metaphysics in the fashion of a modern Carlyle ... or an Ancient Mariner stopping one of three.

And yet here, at the same moment, is a man who seems constitutionally incapable of accepting any personal responsibility for one of the great public policy follies of the past decade and who seems, to all appearances, strangely emotionally detached from its human consequences.

In much the same way as Burchell seems capable of writing about world war one and conflating it with a home insulation program gone wrong, and yet seems strangely emotionally detached from the implications of the scribbling, and the absurdity of his comparisons.

If there was ever an example of how an unquestioned good heart and political irresponsibility of the most abject kind can travel hand in hand - like two heedless child-lovers out of a Medieval chivalry romance - surely this is it.

Ye cats and dogs in a tropical downpour, now we're on to medieval chivalry romance, and perhaps even La Chanson de Roland.

But at last we have cut to the chase, reached the point where prolixity must give way to some kind of point. How about a bah humbug?

It is humbug to suggest - as Garrett continues to suggest - that his scheme has been laid low by the machination of shonky operators or the negligence of half-trained operatives. Patently, there would have been no fly-by-night insulation firms and no army of semi-trained labourers in the first place but for a decision to throw billions of dollars of public money, holus-bolus, towards the creation of a new and for all practical purposes unregulated industry without any apparent concern for the consequences.

And so on and on, and on, and on, when all that was required was a couple of lines: Peter Garrett, having been responsible for the home insulation scheme, should accept responsibility for the flaws in the scheme and its failed execution, and resign.

There, was that so hard? Of course it was. Now we have to head back to the quixotic, exotic Whitlam years, and of all things the mordant sententious tones of Roman imperial historians:

Of all the grand literary creations of Old Labor - the romantic, quixotic Labor of the 1970s, with its endless litany of self-justifying mythologies - none is more elegiac or more eye-opening than Graham Freudenberg's classic biography of Gough Whitlam, A Certain Grandeur. Penned in the mordant, sententious tones of Roman imperial historians, it relates the fall of Whitlam as a kind of grand tragedy, replete with heroic but flawed characters and the inscrutable hand of fate.

Ye cats and dogs of Rome, caught out amongst the pines in a Mediterranean downpour, must even Suetonius be described as sententious? When surely if you want excessive self-righteous moralising, yet completely incapable of pithy aphorisms or maxims, then Burchell is your man.

Well if you don't believe me, have a read of Suetonius on the sex life of the emperor Tiberius and compare it to Burchell's meandering grandiosity:

On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this "the old goat's garden," punning on the island's name. (There's more here, but I'm afraid the swimming pool bits would get us in trouble with Senator Conroy's filter. And you can get translations of the Twelve Caesars at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere on the full to overflowing intertubes).

But back to Burchell, and his determined effort to compare Garrett to the grand disasters of the Whitlam government:

Writing about the notorious loans affair that finally brought Labor to the abyss, Freudenberg conveys the impression that the disaster had only two causes: the grand but sadly flawed personality of Labor's minerals and energy minister Rex Connor and the diabolical malignity of Labor's enemies. On the question of whether a federal minister ought to secure a personal budget line by borrowing billions on the security of the Reserve Bank through a dubious business intermediary, in the ignorance of most of his colleagues and against the furious opposition of Treasury, Freudenberg is elegantly silent. Indeed, he does not even trouble to tell the reader what the Middle Eastern loans were supposed to be for, let alone whether they were necessary. All that matters was Connor's goal of building a great nation. This is the Sermon on the Mount reduced to a farce.

I guess in much the same way as selling pig iron to Japan just before world war two was the sermon on the mount reduced to a farce. But that seemingly forgotten low-water mark of Australian public policy seems to elude Burchell:

From this seemingly forgotten low-water mark of Australian public policy, I'd suggest we can infer the following moral. When you abandon the ethic of responsibility for a troubling and unstable combination of high moral rectitude and low political cunning, you expose yourself to the dizzying prospect of the abyss. And once you begin to fall, there are no handholds.

Well never mind, how quickly the rectitude of the Iraq war, the torturing of prisoners, and the Pacific solution are forgotten by the scribes.

At present - in parts of its infrastructure planning, several of its environmental programs, much of its pseudo-support for hybrid automobiles and more or less the entirety of the National Broadband Network - contemporary federal Labor is tiptoeing close to the edge. It's time to step back again on to economic terra firma.

Well one thing's for certain, it's time to step back again from Max Weber, medieval songs of romance, and historians of imperial Rome, and dare one say it, the odious stench of old ideological warriors digging up and disinterring the bones of the Whitlam era, and return to cultural terra firma.

And instead of spending huge amounts of words, a farrago of far-fetched metaphors and parables and Moses' tablets, offer up a simple request for a ministerial resignation, which could, in a parsimonious world of less gruel, be kept to a couple of pars.

Never mind. Burchell surely week in, week out, wins the 'unsightly straining for significance and pompous pious platitudinous insight' award, and so is an honoured member of loon pond.

Worse, we've also now done a Burchell, what with the Suetonius and the song of Roland ... but at least we always knew loon pond was our natural home.

(Below: the song of Roland. Note the metaphorical implications for the Whitlam and Rudd governments in this portrait of ignorant armies clashing by day. A few intrepid historians have claimed they can see a proophetic Nostradamus-like portrait of David Burchell in the bottom right hand corner, but this scurrilous suggestion and imputation has been utterly refuted, by amongst others, I perhaps incorrectly understand, Namier and Macaulay).

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