feature | John Harms

188 cover

spring 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775171-5-2
published 20 September 2007


John Harms on growing to the Left

I come from a simple background. A battling family from the Australian country. Loving parents. Community-minded in their own way. Three great brothers. Rich childhood, mainly happy.

My father is a Lutheran clergyman, the son of a Lutheran clergyman and the grandson of a Lutheran clergyman. My great-grandfather, after graduating from Hermannsburg Seminary near Hanover in north-western Germany, was ordained and sent to Australia to minister to one of the tight-knit German Lutheran communities which had settled in places like the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills, the Wimmera and Mallee regions of Victoria, the Riverina, and farming areas of the Darling Downs and Lockyer Valley in Queensland.

The Lutherans kept to themselves. Most were peasants from various parts of Germany who had been recruited to work for Australian landholders, knowing they would be free to practise their faith. For that they were very grateful. They were politically conservative, with a strong sense that secular authority was ordained by God. Politics was not overly important to them. They were hard-working, law-abiding citizens who retained their distinctive culture – a culture described very well in the books of Colin Thiele.

My father was born in the little Riverina town of Burrumbuttock where his father was the pastor. Some Lutherans had done very well, purchasing land which they farmed effectively and with great frugality. Everything was used: the last part of the pig for mettwurst, the very last bruised apricot for jam. Everything was a gift from God.

My father grew up during the Depression, a time when some parishioners battled to keep food on the table. After attending the local primary school he was sent to Concordia College in Adelaide, a Lutheran secondary school which prepared boys for enrolment in the seminary or teachers’ college. He graduated as a pastor. His first parish was at Chinchilla on the Darling Downs in Queensland.

If I try to understand the political socialisation of my father, there are a number of key influences. First and foremost, he was part of a community where church matters were far more important than matters of the state. That rich Lutheran culture formed him. He engaged with the broader Australian community by attending the local primary school, with its strong credo of loyalty to king and country. He listened to the radio and read the papers. He loved sport, a further way of engaging with the broader community. His sense of living in Australia, and being Australian, was strong, as was his sense of being a child of the Empire. As a boy he had great respect for the monarch.

He understood the grave threat of war. He watched the dutiful young men of the district march off to Africa and the Middle East and later New Guinea, to defend the Empire. He prayed for their safe return. The tragedy of the death of a local lad was profound. He did the air raid drills. These things were very real.

As a schoolboy, the idea of party politics wasn’t immediate to him. There was, after all, a war cabinet, and cooperation among statesmen was important for community morale. Politics was about personalities. My father came from a home which supported the Country Party, yet he has always spoken very highly of John Curtin, remembering him as a man without pretension. Similarly he thought Ben Chifley was a “fine fellow” and a very good national leader.

The Lutheran tradition taught him that civil authority was ordained by God, and my father learnt to place faith in leaders, particularly during these times of crisis. This faith extended to teachers, lecturers, public servants, professionals, elected representatives, premiers, prime ministers, governors and ultimately the monarch. In my father’s innocence, these were special men, capable men, dedicated men who earnestly fulfilled their public duty. He trusted them.

One of the important periods in my father’s political socialisation was the late 1940s. He was an impressionable eighteen-year-old at a time when conservative Australia was mounting a fierce campaign against communism, using the hysteria to supreme political advantage. Anti-communist propaganda surrounded the rise of the Soviet Union, the detonation of their first atomic bomb, the formation of communist China under Mao, the linking of Australian trade unions with communists, the Iron Curtain, the naming of ‘known communists’ and ‘fellow travellers’ in the US and Australia.

The manipulation of the fear that there were reds under the beds was masterful. The ALP was one step away from control by Moscow. This worked on my father, partly because of the political implications and the threat to Australian life as he knew it, but mainly because the communist ideology denied the existence of God. Connecting the Left with atheism in such a persuasive manner was an act of political genius. The phrase ‘godless communism’ is one of the more successful political slogans of the twentieth century. Connecting the Right with freedom and democracy and the Left with totalitarianism was also extremely effective.

My father was persuaded, and voted for Menzies. He also voted in favour of the banning of the Australian Communist Party in 1951. He went to hear Menzies make a speech in the packed Adelaide Town Hall in the lead up to the referendum, leaving even more convinced than he had been. He prayed about how he should vote.

I find it fascinating that my father was not perturbed by the failure of that referendum and the survival of the Communist Party. His response was classically liberal. “Australians can be a narrow-minded lot,” he remembers thinking. “But the vote was about fairness.” I wonder where that sense of justice regarding people’s desire to form organisations freely comes from. It’s also interesting that it seems a more powerful influence in this situation.

After graduating, as a busy young pastor in the backblocks of Queensland he had little interaction with political writing outside of the local paper, and almost no interaction with the writings of the Left. Karl Marx was not a philosopher, but the father of godless communism. My father’s parishioners planted their crops and cut their hay, and each week he stood in the pulpit, preaching of the grace of God and the love of Christ.

Menzies was a reliable, reassuring father figure who kept the world going as it was intended to go. The seasons just continued, young men and women fell in love, got married, went farming and had a family.

There was a natural order of things. The Right merely kept things on the straight and narrow. For many, the Right was not seen as political. It was the party that oversaw life as it was meant to be; it protected that natural way. By stark contrast, the Left was political: it challenged this natural order. This understanding was affirmed when Joh Bjelke-Petersen began to make his way in Queensland politics. (Years later his daughter married one of Dad’s parishioners.) Joh was a Lutheran, and he was a good man because he was a Lutheran.

The paradox was that my father was not, by nature, a man of the Right. He has never placed a material value on things. He certainly has never had any money. Most Australian clergy, irrespective of denomination, form what Manning Clark, a son of the manse, called the “genteel poor”. As in many working-class Australian homes, we lived from week to week, and somehow managed to scrape by. This didn’t seem to bother him (it did make my mother rather worried at times). Material concerns have never been of great consequence to him.

Spiritual concerns have. “Why do we grow wheat?” he would ask his congregation from the pulpit. “Not to make us wealthy, but so people have bread to eat.” Greed saddens him, but he believes it will be forever present. He has always lived with unquestionable compassion for others, particularly those in difficult circumstances. If someone – even an outsider – was in need, the community found a way to help, even when everyone was struggling.

Like other Lutherans, my father has always believed, and continues to believe, that education is paramount, not because it will allow people to make their way up the socio-economic ladder, but so people can develop their God-given gifts in a manner that ensures they fulfil their responsibilities to contribute to their community through the vocation to which they are called. I have never suggested to him that this ideal has been mentioned elsewhere: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

He has always been driven by a sense of doing the right thing, of living by his conscience. So often we were encouraged to consider things on the basis of conscience, not because it would make us better people, not because it would make us good citizens, but simply because it was the right thing.

These positions have not been uncommon in Australian life over the years. It is not mere nostalgia to suggest that the idea of contributing to the community has been an important part of the sense of an Australian society. It has many origins.

My mother grew up on a small crops farm in the hills outside Gatton in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. She was born in 1940, the fourth of six children. Her father’s family, the Logans, were of Scottish and Irish descent. They had immigrated in the mid-nineteenth century. Her father, my Grandpa Logan, was born in 1908. Her mother, my Nan, was one of fifteen Weier kids, good German Lutherans, who went to church at Ropely. Nan remained a devout Lutheran throughout her life, active in the local parish, and brought up her children that way as well. She could be rather pious in that old Lutheran way, at times. Grandpa (all 5 foot 2 of him) was more of the larrikin.

The family struggled on their 110 acre farm on ‘Blackfella Creek’ (as it was then called) at Tent Hill, growing potatoes and water melons, beans and onions. They were politically conservative, although political concerns were of little consequence. Community concerns were. They saw little link between the two. Politics was for other people. Grandpa was involved in the local school, in organising sports days, and in other community activities like the local show committee.

My mother went to the local state primary school and on to Concordia College, Toowoomba, a Lutheran secondary school for the sons and daughters of farmers of the Lockyer Valley and Darling Downs. Despite outstanding marks in her junior certificate (Year 10), like most girls of her time, she left to work, in the local bank. This was just the way things went in the mid-1950s. She didn’t understand it in philosophical, political or social terms. She just accepted it. Her oldest brother became a Lutheran pastor, one sister became a nurse, another became a teacher. My mother rarely talks about politics. For years, I think, she voted for the Country Party as well.

She was from an old Australia of meat and three vegetables, homemade melon jam, country dances, the occasional movie, and trips to Luther League camps at the coast. That was how she met my father. They were married in 1961. She was twenty-one.

I was born in Chinchilla twelve months later. I grew up in this very religious household. I was Lutheran before I knew I was human: deeply, profoundly, theologically, philosophically, culturally. I had answers before I knew to ask questions. The world was a dangerous place, but we remained protected from it in our wonderful family environment. The world was for others to participate in. We kept within our own tribe. Yet I had to go to school.

Having moved to Wangaratta and then Shepparton, I went to the local state primary schools, before we shifted to the Oakey parish on the Darling Downs. In many ways the Oakey state primary school reflected that very old Australia. I played the bass drum in the fife band, playing the same tunes, like ‘The Shores of Tripoli’ and ‘Scotland the Brave’, as the previous Oakey generations had done. Kids still came to school in bare feet. With pillow hair. We had a fireplace in our old wooden classroom and Mudguts Hudson used to ring the handbell. We played cricket and tennis all summer, and rugby league for the Oakey Bears. Later it was golf, and snooker on the full-sized table in Joe Jurd’s barber’s shop.

I sometimes wonder about my own political socialisation. I am the oldest of four brothers. We were all encouraged in our studies, but certainly not pushed. We had sufficient ability and motivation to do well at school, but little idea that this might lead to some professional opportunity. In fact, we were terribly naive about the social and economic value of education, as we were about many things. Education was about learning for learning’s sake, and in our home we were encouraged to “do your best”.

In Oakey we read the Australian and the Toowoomba Chronicle (and the Melbourne Sun – for the football). We listened to the ABC radio news at a quarter to eight every morning. We watched the various news bulletins at night.

Some events remain clear in my memory. I was eight during the peace demonstrations. I saw images of long-haired students (I seem to remember them always being from Monash) in conflict with the police. Trade unionists were also in conflict with the police. The IRA was fighting the police. The police were unquestionably the good guys (as they were on Homicide and Division 4 where good triumphed over evil). My father’s explanations of these complex political scenarios were appropriately simple. While he had some empathy with the plight of the dissenters, he always came down on the side of civil order.

I remember when Gough Whitlam was prime minister. I remember the dismissal. I remember our Maths teacher, a Geordie called Derek Taylor, appearing at the door of our class to tell our teacher, “They’ve sacked him.” None of this made much sense to me, although I do remember the outrage in Derek Taylor who only got fired up about the fortunes of the English cricket team and the Newcastle football club.

I can’t remember Dad criticising Gough Whitlam much, although I remember Mum being very worried that cars were getting expensive (which might be why we had to buy a second-hand brown Austin Tasman, Dad having sagely rejected the P76, despite its spacious boot).

We once saw Gough, in 1974. When Dad had long-service leave, the whole family picked onions for a month at my uncle’s farm to make some money for a southern tour which took us to see Riverina relatives and Canberra. Dad organised a trip to Parliament House. He contacted our local member, the National Party member for Darling Downs, Tom McVeigh, who kindly hosted us in the dining room. We met Fred Daly – another “fine fellow”, according to my father. Gough walked past in the distance at one point.

To a twelve-year-old these were just important men, and from the reverent way we were expected to behave in the dining room and in the House of Representatives the next morning, they were part of something very important. I had no idea what the members represented. I had no idea of parties, or ideologies, or of the owner-worker, ruling-class-working-class divide. I had not heard the myths of working-class politics. I had grown up being quietly socialised in the dominant capitalist ideology, without ever realising it.

Some things didn’t make sense, and I started to wonder why. Why did I have to wear Sunday-best clothes to church? I had read the Bible and it seemed to me that I could wear anything into the House of God. Why did I have to be on my best behaviour when I visited Nan? Why couldn’t we just be our normal selves?

Why was Gough Whitlam sacked? What was Watergate? Why were Israel and Palestine on the news every day? Why were the IRA and the British army fighting? I had this tendency to ask questions, but I’m not sure where that comes from. I don’t think I got it from my parents, nor my teachers. Perhaps it’s innate.

I had some good teachers at Oakey State High School (which looks exactly like the high school of Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan – Nambour High) but they weren’t into politicising anyone. Wally MacAlpine was a family man who loved soccer and science and the scouts, and he taught us to pursue science for the purest of reasons: to know and understand. To be fastidious, to do things properly.

My English teacher was a big Welshman called Clive Yeabsley. He had Coke-bottle glasses, was a mad cricket lover (his brother Tim had taken a hat-trick for Minor Counties against the West Indies in 1973) and a passion for words. He loved Monty Python and by the time I was in Grade 10 and Fawlty Towers was on TV he would become John Cleese for parts of lessons. We thought this hilarious. But he certainly made no attempt to impose an ideology on us. He invited us to look beyond our little town, our simple lives, our narrow experience.

The senior history teacher was Michael Rimmer, a young Englishman. I was never in his history class – he returned to England before I reached Grade 11 – but when he supervised us he would sit at the front desk and tell amazing tales of travel through the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where his story and other people’s stories and history and politics were interwoven in a way that made him seem so interesting and knowledgeable, and the world a fascinating place.

Yeabs wanted us to read. And so we read Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, King Lear, A Man for All Seasons. Again I can’t remember any political position emerging but we were invited to question ourselves and our Western culture. (This may have made him an ideologue in 2007.)

Death of a Salesman had a significant effect on me. I decided being middle-class was a state of mind: to look after yourself, to do whatever it takes, to fail to ask questions, to take your life in a direction that deep-down you know is against your conscience, to rationalise and justify, to abandon any commitment to personal honesty.

But I still had little idea of the political. A sacked middle-aged private school headmaster taught citizenship education by walking in and writing on the board “Summarise pp143-51” before working on a wordy document that we called his divorce case. I learnt from the driest government-issue text book what the ALP was, and the Liberal Party, and the National Party. I knew that every state had ten senators, and what preferential voting was.

But this was the height of the Cold War, and the arms race, and all of these things happened in the context that we were only a red button away from nuclear war and mass destruction, that the political balance of Left and Right was so precarious that subversive behaviour could be dangerous. You never knew. I was a long way from fully understanding the humour in Get Smart.

I read about the First World War. I could feel the sadness of Gallipoli. Every town had a war memorial. Homes had photos of family members in uniform (from both wars). I knew the profound sadness in the poetry of Wilfred Owen. War was ridiculous. (I did nothing for my local reputation when I read a Wilfrid Gibson poem called ‘Breakfast’ at the 1979 Oakey Anzac Day ceremony.)

I was starting to be driven by a need to make sense of it all: of the things I was seeing, of the things I was feeling. What I was coming to understand was the idea of power: the power of the state, the power of the military, the power of wealth. I was getting an idea of the underdog and coming to realise, as Manning Clark’s mother used to tell him, “All is not what it seems”.

My imagination was captured by Power Without Glory and Martin Vaughan’s portrayal of John West. It was a good story. But my response had more than engagement and enjoyment. There was something else there. Australia, I realised, did have an interesting history. It may well have had an interesting literary culture, although we had studied very little at school. I read Ivan Southall, and Colin Thiele’s Sun on the Stubble, and Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles. Rush also introduced me to the idea of the battling miner with few rights against the monolithic gold mining company with all of its advantages and entitlements. Some things just weren’t fair.

I watched other TV. I am from the F-Troop generation; the age of Morticia Addams, Pottsy Weber, Mrs Slocombe and Corporal Jones. I learnt about industrial relations through Fred Flintstone, the only man stupid enough to confront his boss, Mr Slate. (Fred is louder, more naive and less intelligent than Homer Simpson, but far more self-assured). I watched The Sullivans before it became pure soap.

It was television which really got me thinking. I saw a documentary on Auschwitz. I reckon I was fifteen. It was a profound moment. I cried. I remember lying on the bean-bag under a feather cover made by Nan as the frost of a Darling Downs night settled on the ground outside, tears rolling down my cheeks. Where do these tears come from? This was achingly sad. Beyond mere sadness. More importantly: I realised this was so wrong. I felt it. I knew it.

I read about it. We studied totalitarian nationalism – in particular, Hitler’s Germany – in Grade 11 history. I saw other documentaries. I remember the sound of thousands of Nazis coming to their feet at Nuremberg, the sound of marching, the music. I remember seeing a film of the 1936 Olympic Games and Jesse Owens.

I also saw documentaries about race relations in the USA. Again, I found it difficult to believe that one group of people could treat another group in that manner. In a very unsophisticated way I was starting to realise that in some communities people used their power to promote ideas and understandings which ensured they remained powerful. What had happened, and was happening, in the southern states of America was a classic example. I saw how African-Americans suffered. I watched Roots. I also watched zip-a-dee-doo-dah, watermelon-eating black Americans on the cartoons. The KKK scared me. The Christian basis to some of the attitudes confused me. Such organised and systemic racism was disgraceful. It was just plain wrong.

I was being exposed to injustice, learning about injustice. The most telling thing is I wasn’t seeing it in my own community. I learnt about race relations and the impact of imperialism, not through Australian history, but through American and South African history.

A number of Aboriginal families lived in Oakey and around the district. I played golf with Cec Docherty and watched him play brilliantly as the Oakey full-back. I cheered the masterful five-eighth Dicky Rose, and the ‘black flash’ Willie Weatherall on the wing. But I had so internalised the popular history of Captain Cook discovering Australia, of the pioneers opening up the vast lands, of living in the most egalitarian and democratic land in the world – the land of mateship and generosity and helping someone when they’re in need – that I failed to acknowledge or understand the devastating impact of British colonisation on Indigenous Australians and their culture. I had sanitised my understanding. I had averted my eyes. At that stage I was aware of the problems which face Aboriginal people. But I didn’t know the injustice. More importantly, I didn’t feel the injustice. Why not? Was I subconsciously denying it?

During these final high school years I also discovered protest music. We were a household of Bach and Beethoven and the choir of King’s College Cambridge. I watched Countdown and listened to 4GR’s Top 40 (in the days when ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ was probably vying with ‘You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille’ for number one). My first ever record was a Boz Scaggs album which I won at the Toowoomba Show. But I discovered Bob Dylan and I liked that he believed the times were a’changin’. I liked that there was somethin’ happenin’ here. I wanted to believe it. I needed to believe it. I liked that some people were outraged enough to act.

Near the end of high school I had mixed feelings. I wanted to get out and see the world – which by my ambitious definition meant going the 150 km to Brisbane to uni – but it was a world I was growing to dislike more and more. The further complication came when, during the last two years of high school, most of us (there were just twenty-five students in our final year) were hijacked by the maths-sciences. We were persuaded by the argument that science subjects were prerequisite for many university courses, and that we should keep our options open. The school did change the timetable so we could also include modern history. I was one of four students in that class.

Yeabs was very disappointed. He tired of us. He wanted us to be as enthusiastic about literature and the world of ideas as he was. Yeabs didn’t think that booze, birds and Toranas would do much for us, but we didn’t want to read about stuff, we wanted to do it. In our immaturity we failed to realise you can do both.

So it was off to university to study maths and computer science. The popular belief on the conservative Darling Downs was that Australian universities were hotbeds of seething radicalism and moral decay. Academics were nothing more than Marxist propagandists recruiting unsuspecting young Australians to the communist cause, and students were desperate to jump on board.

What that belief was founded on remains a mystery. When I got to the University of Queensland in 1980, and lived at Union College, very few people in these communities could be described as radical. If you were Left-leaning you could find groups of like-minded people who would welcome you, and you could immerse yourself in their view of the world. But that was the nature of the rich university culture. You could find arch-conservatives and socialists, neo-Nazis and anarchists, environmentalists, Buddhists, Christian groups, chocolate lovers, snooker players, war-gamers, home brew enthusiasts. There was even a CWA – the Chook Walkers Association. There was a healthy sense of fun, of absurdity, of youthfulness, and idealism. Only some things were viewed through the lens of politics.

Some organisations believed they were going to change things for the better. The internal politics of the radical groups were hotly contested, and to the outsider like me it seemed the factions were always arguing over abstract concepts, thereby using a lot of physical and intellectual energy which may have been better directed at bringing their message to the sons and daughters of bourgeois homes, wallowing in the falsity of their consciousness.

But overall, despite the activism on show in the student union precinct, the campus in the early 1980s was in a state of political torpor. It was populated by students many of whom knew comfort, if not excess, and had no reason to expect any change to their position. The most concern they showed was for the rise of that dirty unionist Bob Hawke.

I remember thirteen of us walked up to the Ironside State School to vote in that federal election in 1983. Eleven voted for the Coalition (some of whom voted Flo Bjelke-Petersen number one in the Senate). Only the daughter of a Redcliffe wharfie and I voted for the ALP.

Had the enthusiasm for the university bar, the sports clubs and the parties generally been transferred to more noble pursuits, the interest of social justice may have been served considerably better. There was the occasional protest march – particularly against Malcolm Fraser’s razor gang – which ended up in King George Square and was amusing because the Queensland Special Branch suits were so conspicuous. It was reported on the commercial news services as if the revolution were imminent and anarchy loomed.

The University of Queensland campus was already enormous – over 20 000 students. However, for every one student enrolled in Arts (where all those history, politics, literature, government, sociology, anthropology proselytisers were at work), there were nine students in other faculties. If old Professor Davis (jungle green shirt, jungle green shorts, long khaki socks) was a Marxist he hid it very well. He was just getting through his eight o’clock algebra lectures so he could get back to smoking his pipe which had turned the section of his grey beard below his nostrils Simpson Desert orange. The eccentric Dr Victor Ivor Metchnik may have inspired Mel Brooks to create a KAOS character but he taught us nothing but pure physics.

I wasn’t very settled at university. I was having a great time but science wasn’t for me. The idea of finding a simple life between a beach, a pub and a golf course had certain appeal, particularly given the nostalgia for the counter-culture of the 1960s that existed in my imagination. When I decided to change to Arts I wrote to Yeabs. I’m not entirely sure why. I suspect my long letter had the subtext of confession and contrition. But I had this impulse to tell him that I had contemplated my lot, in the way that a nineteen-year-old does, and decided that the world was about people and relationships, and that I was going to study history.

I completed a dodgy five-year degree with a double major in history, but not too many of my lecturers were blatant ideologues. Ray Evans and Kay Saunders were regarded as old Lefties. Denis Murphy, once president of the Queensland ALP, was more of a story teller than a propagandist. US foreign policy was taken by a playboy tennis enthusiast. I was taught by two former Anglican clergymen (Australian history and German history), a rather motherly Renaissance and Reformation scholar, a rather taciturn international relations lecturer, an Indonesian specialist, and others whose lectures I rarely attended.

More than anything, these academics tried to encourage us to challenge our own understanding of the world. I was so intellectually dim that when asked to write a paper on the Anzac legend, I lashed out against all those who, it seemed to me, were questioning and trivialising the actions of the First AIF, the fine young Australian men who worked hard and played footy and cricket on the weekends, and knew what a good time was, and were willing to defend the nation. I was probably defending myself, even though I abhorred the idea of war. My tutor, Marion Diamond, not wanting to dishearten me too much, gave me one of the most generous conceded passes ever granted in the Forgan-Smith Building. After some time the penny dropped, and I came to understand the simple yet important idea that people have a collection of stories through which they imagine themselves.

The same issues kept surfacing: power, self-interest, greed, ambition, US imperialism, oppression, fear. You either get with the powerful or suffer the consequences. You couldn’t deny the injustice in the world. It was so obvious, so immediate. The myth of Australian egalitarianism and the classless Australian society was easily exposed. Such conclusions were not the result of immersion in a Marxist curriculum. And so what if they were? Why should there be such suspicion about one philosophical position? Why couldn’t it be part of the argument, the conversation?

I did a Dip. Ed. and went teaching.

This sharpened me up no end. I could teach maths and PE easily, but when I took history I had to stay ahead of the students. I was forced to read and research more systematically. But I was enthusiastic, finding all sorts of resources – newspaper and journal articles, books, documentaries, films – in an attempt to bring the subjects alive. Although I was at times a propagandist (why did this make me feel guilty?) who felt he was redressing the imbalance created by a lifetime of conservative rhetoric, my consistent request of my students was that they not accept things blindly, but bring a spirit of criticism to everything.

“Think,” I used to scream at them. “I’m not going to tell you what to think, I just ask that you think.” Sometimes I even felt guilty about that.

I had many fine students. I saw in them the same natural curiosity I had known at high school; the same strong desire to know and understand; the same deep need to make sense of it all. I could see that it was the subject matter which motivated them, that they could become passionate about ideas. Like me, they didn’t just make an intellectual connection, they made an emotional and spiritual connection.

I was interested in the idea of those who naturally questioned things – was it tied up with intelligence? With character? With conscience? What made some people passive acceptors, and others questioners?

I loved teaching, but I had always thought I’d return to study something properly.

Because my first degree was so poor I returned to the University of Queensland to enrol in an MA in Australian studies. I took Australian history and politics. Older and more motivated, I actually completed the readings and attended the tutorials where discussions were interesting and at times absorbing.

Paul Reynolds, who told us he had grown up in rural poverty in New Zealand, took us for Australian politics. Sometimes his evening lecture-seminars were punctuated with the moments of supreme clarity and insight that come from an afternoon at the staff club. He offered a balanced range of explanations for Australian political behaviour. However his anti-Fraser, anti-Barwick bias was obvious and it angered the progeny of conservative homes. He would also lampoon the local private schools when returning essays: “Didn’t they teach you that sentences have verbs at Clayfield College?” But he was able to convey complex ideas in language so simple and precise that when I later taught Australian politics I found myself repeating those explanations almost word for word.

One week of a thirteen week course was devoted to ruling class theory (or hegemonic theory). I was most persuaded by this idea: that those in power will disseminate ideas which work to maintain that power. Reynolds was not a cheer-leader for this, nor any of the theories to which he introduced us. He invited us to read Ruling Class, Ruling Culture. I found R.W. Connell’s argument extremely persuasive, and I still do, particularly in the Australian context. The dominant ideas and culture, however unstated, do influence (if not direct) people’s understanding of the world. I did not think people were duped. They made their own judgements. The challenge is to bring a critical mind to your world.

Having completed a masters thesis (supervised by Geoffrey Bolton), I began a PhD. By this time, theories of textual analysis, discourse and social construction were popular. I found them very clever, and important as intellectual tools, but I wasn’t sure they had much social purpose.

I remember being invited back to take a friend’s Year 11 English classes while she went on a month’s leave. We were analysing Last Man Hanged, Lewis Fitz-Gerald’s terrific documentary about the execution of Ronald Ryan. One class was quite brilliant and they quickly identified the documentary maker’s intent, his use of music, of image, of tender interviews with family members, of emotional interviews with tough old journos. Had Fitz-Gerald walked into the classroom, he would have been under fire for manipulating his audience. What troubled me was that the issue of capital punishment was secondary (if not arbitrary) in all of this. I finished my stint thinking the balance was being lost. You had to help kids develop their critical skills, but not at the expense of discussing the key political and social issues.

I didn’t complete my PhD thesis, despite sticking with it for five years or so and producing some 30 000 words. Instead I started writing for newspapers and magazines. I have also done a lot of radio work. I have spoken to hundreds of people, and tried to tell their stories in one way or another.

I have met many people in everyday life, as well. What interests me is that a lot have had a similar experience to mine: they have grown up in relatively conservative homes, in a culture which is dominated by the ideology of the Right. Yet they have also sensed, ‘All is not what it seems’, stepped outside of their community, and tried to understand it. They too have read and watched, been encouraged by influential teachers, and studied.

They too feel the need to question and challenge. They are committed to social justice. They have a sense of the human lottery. They know that the socio-economic group into which you are born has significant impact on your life. They too are lampooned by Right-wing commentators for their dissent, labelled as acolytes of the loony Left when all they’re doing is calling for well-reasoned analysis and intelligent and sensitive discussion.

Yes, there are millions of people who live on this continent who acknowledge their deeply felt, common humanity. And there are millions who deny it. Hence we have a culture which is unwell – a culture where the loudest voices are preaching an ideology of self-interest, of wealth and materialism, of status, of managerialism, of lifestyle and style. Education is about getting you somewhere.

This culture does not represent the substance I see in people when I meet them and talk to them, people who question the spin which comes from politicians, corporations, businesses and even footy clubs.

These people are not asking the questions that will make them powerful, wealthy, important. We have a different set of questions, for which we are often condemned. (We’re just not realistic enough, going forward.)

When will we make reconciliation a national priority, out of respect for Indigenous Australians? Out of a realisation that, until we do, the nation is founded on a crime?

How do we live in an age of self? How do we deal with tension between self and community? How do we live with the prospect of smallness, and the sense that we might not make a difference at all? How do we deal with working for organisations we don’t completely agree with? Or working with organisations where your sense of economic necessity has allowed you to put your criticisms about the organisation’s direction and intent to the side?

How do we deal with the absence of entitlement, the feeling that the world is someone else’s?

How do we live in a mainstream culture which bombards us with images which are nothing more than floss, images which are not representative of the world we experience, the people we meet, in our day to day lives?

How do we live in a political climate intent on creating and exploiting fear? A political climate which sees the denial of natural justice and the erosion of human rights? How do we register our upset? Our disappointment? Our disgust?

And, importantly, what is the effect on you when you leave the tribe which has formed you? The tribe of the nation of your birth? The Lutheran tribe? The Catholic tribe? The Australian tribe (as you imagined it)? The tribe of suburban Australia? (Why was The Castle so popular?) The tribe of the Australian bush? All of which have had a profound influence on us. Do we retain the values we cherish? Have we abandoned them? Are we experiencing alienation? Is there an associated guilt?

I feel there are so many people asking some of these questions of themselves. And other questions.

I am hopeful. I feel there are so many who yearn for a community which emerges from a common humanity loudly proclaimed. I believe communities will continue to produce those who proclaim it.

I sometimes wonder whether the lens of Left-Right politics is the best tool to use when looking into the hearts of the Australian people. I remember meetings with Professor Bolton while doing my masters. Occasionally we would have a quick lunch at the staff club and then head up to his office in the Gordon Greenwood Building. One time he nodded off for what is known in the tropics as a chardonnay nap. I wasn’t sure whether to leave quietly or sit and wait. After a minute or so he opened his eyes, looked at me and said in his distinctive voice, “Now why are we here?” I wasn’t sure if this was an ontological question to which I should offer a learned response, or a mundane question referring to the day’s routine. Conversations with Geoff were always lively: he was always suggesting things to read, or reaching for a book high on his shelf to find a quote pertaining precisely to our discussion (“There is a passage in W.J. Hudson’s biography of Casey …”).

One afternoon I found myself telling him about my parents. “Your father,” said the good professor, in his friendly but authoritative tone, “seems like one of those social democrats who has voted for the conservatives all of his life.”

I think he is right. But politics ultimately didn’t matter to my father at that time. There are a lot of decent Australians just like that.

Not long after that, my parents retired to the Adelaide hills. Both had worked hard, committed in their sense of service, my father as pastor, my mother in her role (full-time and largely unacknowledged) as pastor’s wife. In the decade since, my father has had far more time to reflect: on his own life, on theological matters, on political matters. His political position has moved a little to the Left. But he continues to see in politics sound evidence of human folly. For my father, and my mother, politics can never deliver real joy.

They find more joy in the sanctuary of their beautiful garden, in the gathering of their kids and grandkids, in roast beef and a Rockford’s red, and in a Geelong victory. And in the traditional Lutheran service each Sunday.

John Harms is a columnist and author. He is the author of Pearl: Steve Renouf’s Story (Paperback Books, 2005) as well as the humorous non-fiction books Loose Men Everywhere, Memoirs of a Mug Punter and Confessions of a Thirteenth Man.
© John Harms
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 4-13

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