17 July 2008

But with a whimper

Gerard Henderson was a pioneer in Australian politics. He is now a wittering irrelevance, a living example of what happens when you get what you have prayed for and can't move beyond it.

There was a time when chaps with a few brains could exercise some influence in right-of-centre politics discreetly, behind the scenes. C D Kemp, B A Santamaria and Peter Coleman all did this to different degrees during the 1950s and '60s. Gerard Henderson positioned himself to do something similar for John Howard when the latter was Liberal leader during the 1980s - but John Howard doesn't like to be managed by his staff, and so Henderson was jettisoned before the Liberals did the same to Howard in 1989.

In other countries, fellows like Enoch Powell and William F Buckley had shown that you didn't have to hide your light under a bushel. By the time the 1980s came around, the red-in-tooth-and-claw culture warrior was matched with thinktanks like the Cato Institute and the American Heritage Foundation. Neither existed in Australia until Gerard Henderson invented them.

His attacks on the ABC were inspired. First, there was extensive precedent from the US in their tirades against PBS and the "nattering nabobs of negativity". The ABC has a much more substantial presence in Australia than PBS does in the United States, and it's a soft target: lefties have become intellectually flaccid and underestimated their need to fight back. Besides, the media loves talking about itself and while someone listening in to Radio National with notepad at the ready would be dismissed as a crank, Henderson could and did get a run. After a while he could, in passive-aggressive style, bully his way onto left-leaning media organs like the ABC and the Fairfax press by claiming that he represented balance, and that to exclude him was to be unbalanced. At a time when declining readership of mainstream media was starting to bite, and when insecurity about political influence was at a premium, media organisations dreaded lack of balance. Really.

Henderson's prime was in the early '90s: the Liberals were trying to work out who they were and what they stood for without wanting to look disorganised. Tobacco advertising was banned and, to use a passive construction deliberately, the Sydney Institute was not unopposed to the sale of products in a capitalist consumer society that were not unlawful. The Sydney Institute ran what looked like a salon but with the behind-the-scenes control of a press conference. Its popularity paralleled that of the Harold Park Hotel's Politics at the Pub for lefties, except with coffee and wine and nibblies rather than schooners and Hall Greenland. It became the venue of choice for those selling weighty tomes who could persuade their writers to come to Australia.

By the time of the 1996 election, Gerard Henderson had helped us understand what we might be in for if we were to elect a Coalition Government: and so it proved, a government of limited imagination but great determination to achieve what little it did. Henderson was mildly disappointed by the Howard government's gradual abandonment of the Howard opposition's commitment to smaller government. He was supplanted as culture warrior by Frank Devine's daughter and Janet Albrechtsen, and was replaced as an intellectual force by refugees from the left like Paddy McGuinness and Keith Windschuttle. He lacked the intellectual strength of Thomas Sowell, the nagging consistency of Grover Norquist or the wit of P J O'Rourke - but he did his best.

Today, Gerard Henderson is a burnt-out shell as you can see from this piece. It fails on two fronts, the political and the moral, missing the threat in both cases.
The new sectarianism is quite different from the old sectarianism. Yet it is real enough. From European settlement in 1788 until about the mid 1960s, Australia was afflicted with a prevailing distrust of Catholics - many were of Irish descent - who formed the nation's largest minority. In those days sectarianism was essentially driven by Protestants.

Whatever people's objections to Catholics were at that time, nobody seriously claimed or believed that the Catholic Church was dedicated to the protection and advancement of child molesters, nor the persecution of their victims. It does not hold that anyone who criticises the Catholic Church for any reason whatsoever must be inherently biased, motivated by the same pettiness and lack of empathy that saw state school and Catholic schoolkids throw stones at one another at bus stops across the land. Yet, this is what Henderson is trying to establish by starting with this: Australia! Not only ragged mountain ranges, droughts and flooding rains - but also people who hate Micks!

Henderson also implies that only non-Catholics are sectarian. Good luck with that.
Nowadays sectarianism in Western democracies is fuelled by what Michael Burleigh terms the "sneering secularists".

Henderson conflates the idea of sectarianism with secularism. Sectarianism means narrowly confined or devoted to a particular religious sect, or bigoted or narrow-minded adherence to a sect. Secularism means that matters of civil policy should be conducted irrespective of how religious movements think they ought to be conducted (from the Latin saecularis meaning worldly, temporal). Henderson believes that sectarianists are secularists, secularists sectarians, and that anyone with any objection whatsoever to any of the attendant fuss that has accompanied the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Australia is solely motivated by this secularist-sectarian bias.
The sneering secularists in our midst oppose all the Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Secularists oppose the idea that all matters on which Judeo-Christian religion has an opinion must be done in a way that accords with Judeo-Christian teaching. It's one thing to frame an article in a slanted way, but to be misrepresentative sets Henderson up for the same intellectual laziness of which he would accuse the ABC and other targets.

The NSW government has - without passing legislation through Parliament - proscribed any act that might be considered annoying to Catholics for most of July 2008. There is no evidence that the Catholic Church has sought this legislation, but they have a duty to express sufficient confidence in their own beliefs that would make such a proscription unnecessary. The Church should have called for the ban, imposed in their name, to be lifted: it has not done so and has attracted criticism as a result. This is not "Pope bashing", as it is not the same as sectarianism. It is, however, secularism at its best: the freedom for Catholics to express themselves is the same for anti-Catholics to do likewise.

On the very day that the High Court decided that the NSW legislation was unconstitutional, Henderson had nothing to say about the issue of free speech: nothing. He had nothing to say about "balance", apart from a bleat about official complaints-handling processes at the ABC.
So far the award for the leading sneerer goes to The Age columnist Catherine Deveny.

And you can imagine Deveny embracing such an award. This goes to the nature of the political threat Henderson perceives: a Melbourne lefty commentator of limited influence beyond those of like mind, and of course the dreaded ...
... NoToPope Coalition.

That coalition wouldn't be particularly large, influential or substantial. It would be a small number of leftwing activists - small to the point of irrelevance, Gerard. I wouldn't say they'd fit into a phonebox, because they don't have phoneboxes any more, but they'd certainly fit into the loungeroom of a small flat in Newtown. Henderson is getting himself all worked up about a small number of people expressing predictable opinions. The fact that they are campaigning for free speech is admirable, but otherwise they are irrelevant - except for their ability to inspire Gerard Henderson columns.
I readily acknowledge that some of the cleverest men and women I have met, or read about, were believers in one of the great religions. They do not warrant mockery.

This is a straw man: nobody is suggesting they do. Deveny was mocking the idea that a major religion should celebrate its own existance with something so lite-brite-n-trite as WYD. There are many devout Christians and good people who wouldn't go anywhere near WYD. This does not mean, however, that they are in league with NoToPope, Catherine Deveny, or other aspects of the sectarian-secularist miasma.
Last year I sent Jane Connors, the manager of ABC Radio National, a note suggesting that it was somewhat imbalanced for Stephen Crittenden to line up three critics of Cardinal George Pell to take the only interview slots on one program of The Religion Report. All Connors wanted to know in her reply was whether this was a formal complaint.

This is what happens when you develop a reputation as a pain-in-the-arse, deal with it.
Last week Lateline began a campaign against Pell concerning his handling of a complaint of Anthony Jones who, at the age of 29, was sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest, Terence Goodall.

Last Tuesday Pell admitted that he had made a mistake in the manner in which he handled the case.

Lateline did not accuse Pell of making a mistake. Lateline accused Pell of being mendacious, writing one thing to one person and another to someone else on the same day regarding the same matter. Pell has no right for his admission to be taken on face value. As to Jones' age: is there an optimal to be sexually assaulted?
Apparently Lateline could not find anyone who would put an alternative view.

Was there anyone with an alternative view? The only "alternative view" was that Pell is, on he whole, a good man who ought not be criticised heavily for having made a mistake. There are plenty of Pell supporters out there willing to make that case, I'm sure, had Pell asked them to do so. However, the points made by the other commentators about the Catholic Church's stonewalling and/or prosecution of victims were well made and, for anyone with any sympathy for sexual assault victims (at any age), hard to refute. Lateline cannot be blamed for failing to find people who don't exist or don't want to refute the irrefutable.

It's also a fact that the Catholic Church takes a hard line against homosexuality. Yet, in the Goodall-Jones case, there was Pell explaining away an intimate moment between two adults - just like any secularist would. Henderson's admiration for Pell has blinded him to this, um, inconsistency.
Such crimes should not diminish the good that priests, brothers and sisters - and bishops - have done over the years. The Canberra Times columnist Jack Waterford is a critic of contemporary Catholicism. Yet, in a column on June 26, he conceded that the stigma ignited by a few offenders had cast a grossly unfair burden on up to 80,000 Catholics who signed up for religious duties in Australia over the past century.

No, they certainly shouldn't. However, Pell muddies the moral waters when he, as leader of Australia's Catholics, makes excuses for sexual abuse and other crimes among clergy that he should condemn and punish. If Pell is under attack, it is for falling short of his professed standards.
If you only listened to the sneering secularists you would get the impression that Catholicism is somehow responsible for high birth rates and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

No, you'd get the impression that Catholics preach high birth rates without practicing them, and that they reject preventative measures for HIV other than abstinence from sex and drug abuse. Mind you, if you only listened to Catholic spokespeople you'd get the same impression.

So this is what it comes to: Henderson sees a political panic from an Age columnist and a handful of radical students, and has wilfully missed the point about freedom of speech. He is amazed when a church leader who regards tireless caring people as human shields for sexual predators has found himself in a moral muddle. Gerard Henderson diminishes the "fine education" he claims for himself with his inability to perceive real issues and his doggedness in irrelevant straw-man work. He gives comfort to his opponents and doesn't help his fellow-travellers. He is unlikely to recapture the lucidity and determination that made his writings must-read commentary, and it is time to write him off.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Gerard Henderson has become a bore and is now the dullest of conservative columnists. As an old lefty centrist, I have always been attracted to the polemicists of the right because they are usually more amusing than the plodders on the other side. But when conservative writers become dull then it is time for them to quit. Paddy McGuinness used to annoy me, but he was entertaining and provocative right to the end. Henderson used to be interesting too. Alas, that was years ago and reading his columns today always brings a sense of disappointment. Like an old fighter, he has slowed down and now just goes through the motions. Time to hang up the gloves, Gerard.