Sunday, May 20, 2007

Welcome to Wetworld, land of pious activists

Blame the late Judith Wright for leading Australian artists in the fight against capitalism, writes Imre Salusinszky

In breaking music news, Brisbane band Topology has created a piece called McLibel, based on Britain's longest-running civil trial. According to the composer, bassist Robert Davidson, the band was attracted to the "David and Goliath" element in the story.

The case was, indeed, a story of David and Goliath: one in which a gigantic, unaccountable, transnational monster (the international green movement) used every lie and fabrication in the book against a company (Macca's) that simply tries to provide tasty and convenient meals, employs hundreds of thousands of workers, is accountable to its investors and the market and, unlike the green movement itself, acts strictly within the laws of every country in which it operates.

But the news that we are going to enjoy an original musical composition based on the case, as well as the lurking suspicion that it will not take the view just outlined, started me wondering: at what point, exactly, did the mouthing of an approved set of political pieties become part of the job-description for Australian artists?

Step forward, the late Judith Wright. If she was not the source of the syndrome, the distinguished Australian poet was surely its most potent exemplar. If there was a fussy, daffy campaign going that tried to put a baffle in front of capitalism and progress, Wright was a walk-up start for it. The lady marched more miles than Chairman Mao.

A daughter of rich New England squatters, Wright spent most of her last 30 years combating the very economic freedoms that could potentially allow others to experience the prosperity that she had enjoyed as a birthright.

I take the unorthodox view that the Australian public has better judgment in most matters than the intelligentsia, and the public has surely learned to ignore the political bleatings of artists - which, given the mass sign-on to fascism in the 1920s and '30s, followed by the wholehearted surrender to communism in the '40s and '50s, is both wise and benign.

But Wright was never a communist, and what makes her a key transitional figure is that she was a pioneer of the retreat of the arts into what I call Wetworld.

"Do you mean that dreadful Kevin Costner film, Imre?" Incorrect, Jose. I mean a nation-within-a-nation that boasts its own religion (the Uniting Church), its own political party (the Democrats), its own think-tank (ACOSS), even its own national broadcasting network (the ABC).

At its most harmless, Wetworld is the steady-drip water-torture of a Tim Costello or a Natasha Stott Despoja; at its full-bore water-cannon worst, it is the kind of green-left fascism that we are likely to see directed against the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne next month.

Above all, Wetworld has provided a secure platform from which artists and intellectuals have been able to maintain their long campaign against the economic and social arrangements that underwrite their own prosperity and freedom of expression. Nowadays, even artists hostile to the Left, like Les Murray, tend to be conservative wets.

But Wright had arrived at this bad place even before Patrick White first pulled a tea-cosy down over his ears and began his own Long March up and down Oxford Street. All of Wetworld's key obsessions were bees in Wright's bonnet. For example, the idea that, with a land mass the size of the United States and fewer inhabitants than London, Australia was facing a "population crisis".

In the late '60s and '70s, Wright found little time for her poetry, as she sought instead to warn an uncaring nation about the imminence of nuclear and environmental holocausts. (Remember those holocausts, where we had to claw our way over each other's stinking dead bodies to collect scraps of food for our young? Bummer!)

By the end of her life, Wright had arrived at something like the opposite of the faith that every genuine artist clings to: "Anyone can write poetry," She declared (quite incorrectly as it happens), "but to be an activist is far more important."

Rather than turning off the tap, Wright's death in June simply opened the sluice-gates. At a memorial service in Canberra, her biographer, Sister Veronica Brady, foamed against the evils of economic growth and "insane materialism", and referred to the Prime Minister as "the horrible little man who doesn't live here" - surely the strangest thing ever said by a nun in a eulogy.

In an article about the Concorde accident last month, this newspaper published a photograph that showed a serious-looking middle-aged woman holding up a large placard, which read, "Protect Aborigines from The Boom". The photograph was captioned: "Protester at Sydney airport during a Concorde visit in 1972". Guess who.

From “The Sydney Morning Herald” of August 14, 2000

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