Category Archives: Blog


The following article appeared in The Age, Saturday, 3rd November, 2012. Opening night of Wild Surmise is Thursday 15th November at The Malthouse in Melbourne.

Dorothy Porter was fascinated by space. In the latter part of her life, stars, planets, our universe and the fabulous intrigue of deep space came to capture her imagination like nothing else.

In 1995 a new comet was discovered. It was called Hale-Bopp after its founders. Two years later it passed over Australian skies. Dorothy – Dot – was ecstatic. But then her excitement was always red hot.

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In his Berlin Diary (Hamish Hamilton, 1941) the American foreign correspondent, William L. Shirer, observed that ‘for the last three or four years the Nazi regime has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect has been representative of the people it rules.’ That is, the rise of Hitler and Nazism was not due to the charisma of the leader or an unusually astute political machine, in fact, nothing unique about the movement or its leader could account for the widespread support from the German people. Rather what Hitler stood for and what he pandered to was already there, in the German people: beliefs about German superiority, German purity, an essence of ‘Germanness’ which set Germans apart and above other people. Hitler identified these traits (and, of course, he shared them) and fed them back to the people in a form that both enhanced the values themselves and the people who subscribed to them.

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1st November, 2012

Australia has just been removed from its own ‘migration zone’. Our country, this huge mass of land, no longer exists as a place of refuge, of sanctuary for desperate people.

‘Migration zone’: another euphemism to add to the pile that has steadily grown since the beginning of the Howard years.

One of the worst euphemisms of recent times is ‘the people smuggling business’. It first entered the public forum last year and it is still bandied around – on both sides of politics and increasingly in the wider community. Like all political euphemisms it is a form of propaganda. The word ‘model’, dangling precariously at the end of an already cumbersome phrase, has been added to suggest that if we don’t nip this ‘people smuggling business’ in the bud it will serve as the pro forma for umpteen more people smuggling businesses. And what is it about the construction of this phrase that the word ‘smuggling’ is so dominant? ‘Smuggling’ is a present participle, derived from the verb ‘to smuggle’. Verbs tend to be strong words, the most powerful and active of a sentence. ‘People’, in contrast, is a noun, and a collective noun at that, i.e. non-specific and relatively weak, but in this construction it is weakened still further by acting as an adjective. If instead of ‘people smuggling’ the phrase were ‘children smuggling’ or ‘infant smuggling’ or ‘kidney smuggling’, the more specific word would hold its own against ‘smuggling’. So when a member of the government says ‘the people smuggling business model’ the words we actually hear are ‘smuggling business’. And it sounds pretty awful, conjuring up pirates with machetes threatening innocent people – like us.

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There’s nothing new in what follows, nothing mysterious or intriguing. It’s that old old stab in the heart of wisdom that comes too late.

I’m reading Irving Howe’s magisterial THE WORLD OF OUR FATHERS. In this book bursting with detail, Howe documents the immigration of Eastern European Jews to the US – to the Lower East side of NYC in particular – from the 1880’s to the 1920s. He writes about long hours in factories, appalling housing, illness, loneliness, dislocation. He writes about hopes and dreams, the night classes and lectures, the workers’ groups. And he writes about the children of these Yiddish speaking parents, children who became Americanised, who, like so many children of immigrants, born out of the hardship of their parents go through a stage of resentment of those parents, even shame. It is not that they don’t love their parents, or are not grateful. But the parents are tethered to a past that simply has no relevance to these children impatient to plunge into the new world.

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