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‘Richard Flanagan: ‘Our politics is a dreadful black comedy’ – press club speech in full’

*Pic: Richard Flanagan: ‘Since the marriage equality vote it’s clear that Australians are not the mean and pinched people we had been persuaded and bluffed for so many years that we were.’

Indigenous Australia, Anzac Day, the descent of democracy – in a National Press Club address Flanagan examines a divided Australia which he says can be free only if it faces up to its past

First published April 19

I told a friend the other day I was to be speaking here in Canberra today and she told me a joke. A man is doubled over at the front of Parliament House throwing up. A stranger comes up and puts an arm around the vomiting man. I know how you feel, the stranger says.

It’s not a bad joke. But it felt familiar. I went searching my book shelves, and finally found a variation of it in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, set in communist Czechoslovakia in the dark years after the Prague Spring. In Kundera’s version the two men are standing in Wenceslas Square.

Both jokes are about failing regimes that have lost the essential moral legitimacy governments need to govern. We don’t have to like or agree with a government but we still accept it has the right to make decisions in our name. Until, that is, we don’t. And it occurred to me that in both jokes it’s not just those in immediate power but a whole system that is beginning to lose its moral legitimacy.

As a young man I was studying in England, which I didn’t much enjoy, and spent most of my time in Yugoslavia, which I got to know through my wife’s family, who were Slovene, and which I enjoyed very much. Yugoslavia was then a communist dictatorship, but it occupied a curious place, halfway between the Soviet and capitalist system.

Yugoslavs were a well-educated, cultured people. But the system, like that of the Czechs, lost its legitimacy after Tito’s death in the mid 80s. A credit crisis became a full blown economic and then political crisis. Opportunistic politicians, devoid of solutions to the nation’s problems, instead pitched neighbour against neighbour. And suddenly nothing held.

I witnessed a country slide into inexplicable nationalisms and ethnic hatreds, and in the space of a very short time, into genocidal madness.

It made me realise at a young age that the veneer of civilised societies is very thin, a fragile thing that once broken brings forth monsters.

Czechoslovakia took a different route. After the final toppling of the system with the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the revolution’s leader, Vaclav Havel, wrote presciently of how the west should not gloat over the fall of the old Soviet states. Eastern Europe was, he observed, simply a twisted mirror reflecting back a slightly more distorted image of what might come to prevail in the west. If the west only gloated and did not learn from what that image portended of its future, it too might find itself one day facing a similar existential crisis …

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Peacenik

    April 26, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    The original Anzac memorial day occurred when a sole widow with some flowers left them at the Cenotaph in Sydney .. a quiet moment of grief which had nothing to do with politicians.

    The carnage in Monash gully ceased at Gallipoli when then was a cease fire so that the Anzacs could help the Turkish forces bury thousands of dead Turkish soldiers who had being lying dead and unburied for over three weeks.

    If Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister, really wishes to form enduring bonds with other countries .. how about he signs us up to the new Nuclear Disarmament treaty?

    How bizarre that the Australian government has provided a virtual reality of soldiers being blown to smithereens at the memorial in France for heroic valour ( true)

    Unfortunately very little is said on successive Anzac days about the effects of wars on civilians, especially children.

  2. Frank Nicklason

    April 24, 2018 at 1:43 am

    The critical importance of truth telling is examined in Jordan B Peterson’s best seller: 12 Rules for Life, An Antedote to Chaos.

    The following passage is quoted:

    In the big lie there is always a force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they fall more readily victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in small matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be another explation.

    This is a quotation from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

    Peterson asserts, “for the big lie, you first need the little lie……. truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities”.

  3. Alison Bleaney

    April 20, 2018 at 3:08 am

    Bravo Richard, your path of hope and possibilities are thrown to us all like lifelines. May they be caught, and held, and allow us to be pulled in close .. thank you for sharing.

  4. john hayward

    April 18, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Our politics would be more of a farce than a black comedy if we hadn’t insisted on dubbing our species “sapiens”.

    Our extremely rapid and radical evolution (for a mammal) seems to have left us with some serious design faults, notably a paranoid hindbrain that can override the cerebrum in the presence of a perceived threat. This has seemingly led to the election of narcissistic despots such as Trumpty, Vlad, Tony, Pauline, etc who share Tony’s vision of the world as arranged along “battlelines” dividing implacably greedy human tribes

    The only consolation is that the desperate final battle for supremacy is likely to be the finale.

    John Hayward

  5. Peter Bright

    April 18, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Andrew at #1 seeks a means of capturing audio from the Web.

    The simplest program I’ve found that can do this, and more, is that by MooO. Yep, a weird name, but probably nothing to do with cows.

    You can download this free program from here:

    http://www.moo0.com/?top=http://www.moo0.com/software/VoiceRecorder/

    [i]”Record Your Voice / PC Audio Easily

    “Moo0 Audio Recorder is a very simple sound recorder.

    “It is very easy to use, and you can start recording “Any PC Audio” / “Any PC Audio and Voice” / “Only Voice” just by one-click. It supports MP3 and Wave file formats to save the files into.

    “Also, since this program can capture any sounds on your PC, you may use it to record Internet radio, streaming music, Skype calls and even some songs from your video files.”[/i]

  6. ANDREW HEARD

    April 18, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Is there a way to save National Press Club audio as an MP3 like is possible with many ABC podcasts these days? I can play the video online but would love to play the audio offline at a later date. A small percentage of NPC lectures make there way to YouTube where you can save the audio. I check all around the NPC website with no luck.

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