Walking the Line


To paraphrase an old gay rights slogan, why assume I’m Left-wing?

There is nothing that paralyses genuine debate more than the assumption of a pre-existing consensus. And yet that assumption underlies most of the academic seminars I have ever attended. (Perhaps I should point out that my experience is limited to Humanities departments. Maybe all the closet Liberals hang out in Physics, or more likely they’ve all gone into university administration.)

There is no dark conspiracy here, no ‘ethnic cleansing’ of staff who don’t fit a particular political profile. It just so happens that opinions within the academy tend to bunch somewhere between the centre and the left on political issues.

Within that broad band, there are of course heated disagreements on many subjects, but if you want to play it safe in a seminar, you can’t go wrong with a John Howard put-down. Everyone knows that John Howard is a Bad Thing. By reaffirming this universally acknowledged truth, we can all pat each other on the back for sharing the ‘right’ opinion and feel good about ourselves for a moment.

My gut reaction to such predictable and meaningless platitudes is to interrupt with a suitably outrageous proposition: ‘The trouble with John Howard is that he doesn’t go far enough! What these young people need today is a good flogging!’ Of course I say no such thing. Not only because I don’t want to get lynched but because mischievousness alone is insufficient justification for being offensive and inflammatory.

What I do actively disagree with some colleagues about is the necessity to be ‘politically engaged’. Why should I be?

Of course, as a citizen (actually a temporary resident who hopes to become a citizen one day, but you get the point), I have a duty to be informed on matters of national and local importance, to form opinions on these issues, and to participate in the political process.

What I mean is why should I be politically engaged as an academic?

Nobody expects novelists and artists to be activists. Of course some of them are with wildly varying consequences for the quality of their work but others refuse to address explicitly political themes, and this stance is a venerable, respectable and legitimate one.

So I hereby declare myself a non-combatant in the History Wars.

The politics of history don’t interest me. The aesthetics of history do. I want to find new ways of telling true stories and I want to draw upon a wide repertoire of formal and stylistic devices to do so, but I don’t care which party my readers support. It’s none of my business.

Thus if my writing had a political consciousness, it would be a swinging voter. For example, I have written a book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! which invites both Left-wing and Right-wing interpretations, both of which are equally valid.

Pistols! Treason! Murder! is about a Venetian spy named Gerolamo Vano, whose meteoric rise to success in the world of counter-intelligence was abruptly interrupted by his execution for perjury in 1622. The Right-wing interpretation of Vano’s career is that it’s an inspiring tale of an enterprising individual who saw a gap in a market in this case the market for information and through force of will and improvisational genius found a way to fill that gap.

If he later came unstuck, well that can happen to the best of men. The Left-wing interpretation of Vano’s career is that it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an unelected individual in a position of unearned influence places his own advantage above that of the community he is supposed to be serving and, as a result undermines the legal process.

In keeping with the neutral stance outlined above, I avoided any reference to current events in Pistols! Treason! Murder! not least because such references would doom it to almost immediate obsolescence. Some of you may be thinking that I was just making a virtue out of necessity. After all, how can you have a ‘politically engaged’ reading of the actions of a man who died nearly 400 years ago?

Well, perhaps now is the time to give in to the urgings of my colleagues and “ in complete contrast to my declared neutrality above suggest why Gerolamo Vano matters to Australian politics in 2007.

In Vano’s case, overenthusiastic misinterpretation of ambiguous evidence ‘only’ led to the death of one innocent man who was later exonerated posthumously and the execution of one guilty spy (Vano himself). In early twenty-first century Australia the stakes are higher but the excuse is the same, in everything from children overboard to weapons of mass destruction.

It wasn’t my fault. I was badly briefed. Something got lost in the chain of communication.

As if the chain of communication is not specifically designed to include circuit-breakers and firewalls that reduce individual accountability by compartmentalising decision making. That way nobody ever has to take personal responsibility for anything. The same principle applied in seventeenth-century Venice, but at least Vano’s employers were honest enough to admit they made a mistake. In Australia passing the buck remains the golden rule. Just ask Cornelia Rau, Vivian Alvarez Solon and David Hicks.

But there is a broader argument here, about the origins of the dark side of Western civilization. We like to imagine noble figures like Plato and Rousseau as the spiritual ancestors of our political culture. More adventurous souls might be willing to admit that Machiavelli belongs in the canon, but who would want to claim a place there for a lying non-entity like Gerolamo Vano?

Maybe I have spent too much time in Vano’s company, but I see his unacknowledged face grinning back at me everywhere I look. He stands for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of others for his own gain. For Vano, the only thing that mattered was keeping the audience’s attention, by any means necessary.

Do I share these principles? Not exactly, but it is impossible to deny their enduring, and possibly their growing, importance in the political landscape in Australia.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.