Gainsborough, Vance: Review note: Meanjin Autumn 2018: ‘the moral consequences of the things we do’

Vance Gainsborough*

‘Review note: Meanjin Autumn 2018: “the moral consequences of the things we do”‘, Honest History, 5 April 2018

Like all issues of this venerable but feisty publication, Meanjin Autumn 2018 has a lot of meaty content, so this note will only touch on some items. But the whole issue is highly recommended. There are a few samples here but, go on, subscribe and get the lot.

The ‘Up Front’ section includes publisher Phillipa McGuinness’s whimsical account of how she came to write her own book on the year 2001. ‘Writing a book is not a mysterious or metaphysical act’, she says. ‘It is all about work.’ But it’s also about seeing the book published and McGuinness will reach that stage later this year.

download (1)Antony Loewenstein’s memoir, ‘My Jewish atheist journey’, carries in its title some of the complexity of its subject matter. Anyone who thinks the politics of Israel and Palestine can be reduced to simple questions of who one is ‘pro’ and who ‘anti’ needs to read Loewenstein.

Nick Martin was a doctor on Nauru and his long account clinically describes official obfuscation and bastardry, individual bewilderment and despair – as well as occasional chicanery from asylum seekers. Again, infinite complexity and no easy answers – but the likelihood of any answers being found is reduced by the mushroom treatment meted out both to residents and concerned Australians.

The meat of this Meanjin for me, however, lay mostly in the ‘Essays’. Here are a few telling quotes:

  • ‘It was interesting to talk to straight supporters, some of whom seemed far more invested in same-sex marriage than I am’: Dennis Altman, ‘The course of true love …’ (on the marriage equality plebiscite).
  • ‘The continent, seeded with Indigenous names and stories, has been progressively renamed in places [from Indigenous names to words like ‘massacre’, ‘murdering’ and ‘skull’] not to commemorate the deaths of First Nations people but the very act of murdering them’: Paul Daley, ‘Heroes, monuments and history‘ (on modern settler blindness about frontier conflict).
  • ‘We don’t need to tear down statues, we just need to understand them’: historian Martin Crotty, quoted in Kerrie Davies, ‘Hearing Bertha Lawson’ (comparing Henry Lawson and the Anzacs as myths).
  • ‘Consider the prodigious amount of national energy spent simply on obscuring the lives and humanity of asylum seekers’: Patrick Stokes, ‘The moral moment’ (erasure and myth as the foundations of insular settler societies).

To get things under way, Jonathan Green provides one of his pithy and pungent editorials. He refers to ‘routine lapses of national memory that save us from the moral consequences of the things we do’ and segues into comments on the Daley and Martin pieces. He particularly notes our ‘highly selective’ memory of Indigenous-settler relations. ‘We might do well to consider’, he adds, ‘whether a country that truly faced the facts of what is done in its name on Nauru and Manus could ever have the right to call itself morally whole’.

* Vance Gainsborough is a long-time resident of Canberra. Helping out at Honest History, he has written on a National Portrait Gallery exhibition about pets and people and done a review note on a previous Meanjin and the first number of Tocsin. The handle is a pseudonym.

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