Saturday, March 14, 2009

Michael Duffy, the ABC, history lessons, Rogue Nation, and Rogue White Loving Conservatives

Michael Duffy, aka the lead-footed Duffster, esteemed columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, on the need in history to extend generosity of spirit to all subjects: 

With conservative leaders, such as Robert Menzies or John Howard, it has usually been the opposite: their virtues and values are played down and their faults exaggerated. Through the repetition of this process over many years, conservatives have been pushed beyond the moral pale and largely out of the historical picture.

When someone makes a statement as bald, as sweeping, as mendacious and false as this, it's a way of establishing a clinical basis for paranoia, or providing startling evidence of intellectual dishonesty, or perhaps if viewed in a kindly way, as just a simple case of refracting mirrors and humbuggery.

Yep the Duffster is on his hobby horse, the bees in his bonnet buzzing, as he bemoans the way conservatives have been wiped from history in some kind of deliberate collective amnesia by historians, or worse, a deliberate erasure of a Stalinist kind.

Let's start on a simple level to review his paranoid defeatism: the idea that Menzies is completely ignored while contemporaries like Doc Evatt and Arthur "two wongs don't make a white" Calwell are elevated into some mystical left-wing historical pantheon is simply nonsense. And how did John Howard work himself into this tale of being ignored over many years? The man was Prime Minister until 2007. Yep, it's just shoddy writing and shoddy thinking.

But as always the Duffster is never content with just one example for English teachers wanting to set a HSC example for students learning to analyze faulty logic.

There is nothing sinister about this most of the time. It is just the outcome of a thousand tiny acts of inclination and personal preference expressed by a predominantly left-wing culture. At its basis is the simple fact that its members simply don't find conservatives interesting.

As conclusive evidence, the Duffster cites the four part ABC documentary series The Howard Years, contrasting it with the series Labor in Power: ... it was perfunctory and cliched. You could see the makers had done their best to be fair, but nothing could make them interested in what made their subjects tick. And so the result was uninteresting.

This is such a mind-boggling distortion of the creative process, that I suddenly felt deeply for the documentary film-makers involved in The Howard Years, which is uninteresting, but not because the makers displayed left-wing bias, or have it deep in their bones, or were uninterested in their subjects, or deployed the tiresome Fran Kelly to be narrator. For those who can remember what made the Labor series interesting, chief virtue has to be the fact that all the left-wing loons decided to talk about themselves in ways that were unseemly and unsightly, but immensely entertaining.

The main problem for The Howard Years was that some sanctimonious conservatives decided not to take part at all, and were duly praised for doing so by the likes of Gerard Henderson, who is so paranoid that he seems to revile anyone who goes on the ABC for any reason, unless it's someone firmly able to resist infection by left wing memes, like himself. 

Other participants in the events were exceptionally guarded and deliberately dull - none more so than Howard himself, despite his extensive contribution to the program. It's a bit like contrasting a bunch of Irish alcoholics armed with baseball bats - or in the case of Keating a venomous wit - gathered to celebrate their demise, as they did in the Labor show, and a gathering of Methodists at a funeral, determined to be polite to each other, despite deep seated, long running family hostilities and an on-going argument over who'd inherit the family jewels.

To blame the film-makers for their bias when there are clear failings in the subject matter is sheer perversity. Now it can be argued that they might have done better, should have done better at winkling out the entertaining bits, but how likely was it that John Howard would reveal intimate details of his discussions with his chief political advisor Janette Howard? And how quickly they would have been assaulted by conservatives if they'd spent all their time on the juicy bits, like the AWB scandal. Typical ABC, try to be balanced and fair, but your genes will always show to the discerning rightie. Hagiography is what's required, provided it's dressed up with a sense of worshipful balance.

At no point does it seem to hit the Duffster that Howard is in fact immensely dull. That this dullness was an effective political strategy, reassuring to his constituency, and that as a result, and in keeping with his deepest political instincts, he will maintain this bland dullness to the day he dies. And nothing wrong with that.

On a more general level, the charge is simply preposterous. Citizen Kane has long been the top film in the top ten list of critics best all time films, and it is of course about a newspaper tycoon, prompting that act of hubris There Will Be Blood, about oil and religious tycoonery, which is less successful but still well up there (not to mention one of my favorite films, Elmer Gantry, and its portrait of fundie conservative Christianity).

Funnily enough, the show which has prompted all these Duffy musings is Michael Cathcart's two part Rogue Nation history of early colonial Sydney, a subject that rarely makes it to television (I won't bore you with a list of contradictory examples, but let me just say that once again in a Rush to judgement, the Duffster is pissing Against the Wind).

Feast your eyes on wild colonial joy, chortles the Duffster, as a way of erasing the taint of bad-news stories about convicts and Aborigines. First let's give a little half-hearted, half-baked nod to such wretched black arm band excesses: Many of these productions have been excellent and important contributions to our history, but taken together they have painted a dark picture that has obscured the fact that much was good was also happening in the early years of white settlement.

Then it's on to the criminals who did this, starting with Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, a rip snorter that ignored the big thing in our early decades. And that was the surprisingly quick and successful development of a white society and its economy. Quick Mr. Hughes revise your work to write about what the Duffster deems significant and interesting. 

What's that you say? Why doesn't he write his own? Well indeedy he has, it's called John Macarthur: Man of Honour, and apart from it being excessively modern in its approach, it's a remarkably dull fetishistic review of the code of honor exemplified in the new colonials. Sorry Duffster, no film deal there, despite your loving interest in dueling as a way of sorting matters amongst gentlemen.

But enough of that, let's get back to slagging the ABC, as the story of early NSW involves politicians and businessmen, types of whom the national broadcaster has not always demonstrated much understanding. In fact, you'd have to say that over the years it has more often than not reflected a left-wing view of what matters about Australian history.

So what does the Duffster lead with to justify this sweeping indictment? Why the docudrama about the wharf dispute Bastard Boys. It seems it showed the leaders of the unionists as human, even heroic, while it showed the capitalist heavies as bastards - Chris Corrigan was a sort of human string puppet, with a rich assortment of nervous tics.

But you see Duffster, here the ABC was in fact showing a deep interest in conservatives, politicians and businessmen. It just chose to show the conservatives as the baddies. Conservatives make good baddies, have done so since the days of Dickens, well actually since the days of Shakespeare's Richard III. Power mongers, money grabbers, leeches, amoralist fuckers of women, as they scramble their way to the top in their chosen fields. 

Could they have made the unionists the heavies? Well surely but they would have done even worse in the ratings. You don't make the common folk the heavies. We all know they were dole bludging, lazy, container looting, shift evading, unproductive rats, but where's that going to get you in a docudrama. Then you're trying to make The Wire, which for Australian drama is a rough equivalent of us trying to get to the moon in the next decade.

Don't take it personally Duffster, having decent heavies makes drama interesting. It makes conservatives interesting. That's why they don't end up on the scrap heap of history. That's how you get Brideshead Revisited, the television series, and then brideshead revisited in Brideshead Revisited the movie. That's how you can have fun with an oil man taking out a Christian with a bowling pin.

You don't think Power Without Glory was interesting because of the assorted mugs carrying on like Frank Hardy on the periphery of the drama? Heck no, it was having John Wren aka West as our very own period gangster, and boy do we love our gangsters (except when they come from New Zealand).

Anyhoo, let's redefine the debate: it's not so much that the ABC is uninterested in politicians and businessmen, as you don't like the skew and the spin on their fascination with these subjects.

Funnily enough, Rogue Nation is the kind of docudrama that sends the likes of Gerard Henderson into a frenzy, since it contains evocative pastiches of the past which do as much to distort as to reflect the period. The Duffster notes the couple the actors playing Macarthur and Bligh (Geoff Morrell and John Wood) don't much resemble the originals, both are too nice to evoke the hard men, and both speak with an Australian accent when the originals were British to the bootstraps. So we can stand by for a caning from Henderson next week for these distortions.

Or will Henderson join the new party line? According to the Duffster, the show romps along in an entertaining and informative fashion, it's a welcome reminder of the riches of our past, and above all it deals with events of significance to white folks and their descendants. That's right, enough already with the black armband and the blacks. We're so over you sorry black dudes. What are we talking about? White history. What do we want? White history.

Then it's back to a Duffster rant: And the insight on display is grown-up: there is an acknowledgment that powerful people outside the labour movement can contribute to society, even if they're not always honest or likeable.

This is refreshing, because too often in history different moral standards are applied to the right and the left. Again and again, in books and lessons and on film, we have seen the left's heroes, such as John Curtin and Lionel Murphy, largely forgiven their faults in order that we might focus on their virtues. It's not that anything wrong is put in most of the time, it's just that some of the bad stuff is left out, or at least minimised. It's a question of balance, and in these cases the balance is tilted by affection.

Now students study the arguments in this text. Conservatives are grown-up. People outside the labor movement contribute to society even if they're not always honest or likeable. However if we draw attention to their dishonesty or their lack of likeability, we are being tilted by a lack of affection, a lack of balance. 

Whereas John Curtin and Lionel Murphy have a lot in common, because they belong to the Labor movement, and have similar faults, which are ignored in favor of their virtues, except in the case of Murphy, who was traduced endlessly because of the "my little mate" scandal and the subsequent commission of inquiry, which only untreatable cancer allowed Murphy to avoid. John Curtin led the country during World War Two until it killed him. So there's an immediate connection, an immediate symmetry - I've always suspected illness and death to be a weakness of the left.

Anyhoo, Cathcart's history might well be watchable, despite earning the Duffster's praise. Give it a go, what have you got to lose, and you might have a lot to gain - insight into the Duffster's paranoia for a start. You might even become fascinated with our autocratic and prickly forebears and wonder if deep down the Duffster fancies himself in a lace and bodice thriller where he cuts and thrusts his way through the human detritus known as the mob, in an old-fashioned dueling way beloved of French aristocrats and John Macarthur (and what does history teach us? Nothing has changed - except now the mob is known as hideous, howling ABC leftie viewers supporting a hideous vampiric leftie ABC culture).

So to this week's score card and it's a good one:

Ability to evoke conservative paranoia: 11
Willingness to blame left wing culture for everything wrong with television, drama, docudrama, history and the ABC: 11
Ability to celebrate a program about whites, instead of those icky black armband black folks (and no reason to say sorry about that): 11
Willingness to forgive docudrama its historical errors and flaws, in a magnanimous conservative way, unlike Gerard Henderson: 11
Actual powerful logical argumentative style on display for benefit of HSC students: 1
Display of wilful illogicality and distorted thinking for the benefit of HSC students wishing to learn methods of clear thinking: 11

Excellent scoring. The Duffster, inspired by our white right-wing past, has bounced back to top form. Sure I know nobody out there reads him, but that's not his fault. It's the way the ABC has infected you with its insidious left wing attitudes, which extends to putting the Duffster to air on radio regularly so people can ignore his curious rants and bizarre interviews.

Now while there might be a tad of a conflict, him being an employee of the ABC and all, perhaps in his next column, the Duffster could explore the real reasons why the current ABC drama department is inept, dysfunctional and useless, as their current range of product amply demonstrates. 

When not wanting to re-make SeaChange over and over again, all they manage are feeble six parter shows like  The Cut. The glory days are long gone, and ABC viewers are doing it hard, and yet there's not a conservative cheep cheep to be heard about this suffering. And it doesn't have anything to do with left-wing culture. It has to do with a television drama culture. 

The BBC is just as left-wing (if you insist) but they always make interesting programs. The ABC drama department (and the managers who manage it) have lost their way, and its time for a change. Why is Underbelly on Nine for a start?

Sure we would have lost a lot of tits and a fair whack of the violence, but in the old days, in the Blue Murder days, the ABC knew how to do it. The Duffster might settle for a nice historical docudrama about white folks in the early days, but I'd like some ampage, some wattage, some raw, coal-produced energy, in the drama department (just thought the mention of coal power might get the conservatives interested). 

You see Duffster in the end good drama acknowledges the richness and foibles of humanity, and rarely gets bogged down in passionate discourse over what's left and what's right. People still don't know whether Shakespeare was a conservative Catholic and probably never will. You can't tell much about his politics from his plays, but you can learn a helluva lot about people. Maybe if you took off the right wing blinkers you could have more fun. And you might get to understand that anyone can be a good subject for drama and for history, be they a mad as march hare Stalin or Mao, or a black dog depressive like Churchill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"except in the case of Murphy, who was traduced endlessly because of the "my little mate" scandal and the subsequent commission of inquiry, which only untreatable cancer allowed Murphy to avoid."

I know, I know...

Bloody bourgeois legal system won't allow a comrade to look after his little mate...

It's endlessly traducing.