PANIC by David Marr

image collage: PanicPanic cover image

It is highly telling of the nature of the language that surrounds refugees in Australia that as a child, before I knew the correct definition of the phrase ‘asylum seeker’, I thought it was some sort of dangerous weapon of war – probably because of another phrase I knew from my brother’s video games: heat-seeking missile. So, when the press reported in large fonts or alarmed tones that ‘asylum seekers’ were headed for our shores, the ensuing panic seemed wholly justified to my young, wide-eyed self. Had I known the true definition of the term – to seek shelter from persecution – I may have been a little more perplexed about the anger and fear generated by, as Marr puts it, these “wretched men and women arriving on our shores in leaky fishing boats”.

Panic by Australian journalist David Marr is a collation of much of his writing from the past decade, with postscripts for the present date in each chapter, plus an overarching introductory chapter explaining and examining the premise of the book: to bring light to (or, as he says, “bell the cat” of) Australia’s capacity to generate irrational bouts of fear (moral panics), and for those fears to be used by politicians and the press to manipulate the voting public.

I felt like I was bursting out of my skin with frustration reading this book. Not by Marr’s writing – he presents his opinions logically and eloquently – but with the injustices and often ludicrousness of the issues he discusses. I could think of more than a few people who would benefit from reading his ‘other side of the story’ – largely the story put forward by a few loud and powerful voices of the likes of Alan Jones with such red-faced, frothing gusto.

Chapters in this book cover everything from the rise of Australia’s One Nation party leader, Pauline Hanson (“a white woman sticking up for old White Australia” – not that it’s all that old; the racist-by-definition policy was only dismantled in the 1970s); to the absence of any constitutional rights in Australia “to protect us all from the madness that sweeps nations from time to time”; Aboriginal land rights; the Cronulla riots; homosexuality and gay marriage; the failed war on drugs; and the moral panic ignited by Bill Henson’s controversial photography (Marr has also written a book about the latter topic).

I breathed a sigh of relief when Marr mentioned of the Chaser stunt (watch it on YouTube here) during APEC in 2007 – an effective and hilarious up-yours to the powers at be, and clear demonstration of the purely rhetorical nature of the highly visible lockdown that made Sydney look like a prison. “Howard looked foolish,” Marr says. “Australia laughed all the way to the polls. Panic can’t take a joke.”

Another consequence of the Chaser’s prank was to remind us that if there’s one way to counter this climate of fear its through humour – and that’s something most Australians are just as capable of as they are at clinging to the status quo. Here’s hoping the former prevails.

The Punch comic

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Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP

Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.

I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?

Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.

Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.

Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.

I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.

Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.