Bert and Ernie occupy such a mighty place in the popular imagination that it’s hard for us to remember that they began as a reference to something else. But in the Jim Henson universe, sly, humourous, or worthy commentaries on public figures and social issues were always part of the process. The recent public debate about them seems to have handily sidestepped the fact that the characters are, among other things, an obvious allusion to The Odd Couple, originally a 1965 Broadway play by the late Neil Simon.
The best that can be said about the Ramsay Centre’s proposal to sponsor an elite course in Western civilisation is that it has revived a flagging discussion about the intellectual and political considerations that shape the humanities curricula of Australian universities.
I first heard about Marielle Franco in April this year. While visiting Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a tourist with my family, I found myself in a bar late one night with an expat who had lived in the country for more than thirty years.
I was stopped by immigration officials and asked questions like: why had I travelled to India in the past? Why had I stayed so long on my previous trip? What were the full names and professions of the friends I’d be staying with? What was my job? How many books had I written? After about an hour of this, and despite having a valid visa and an onward ticket to Bangladesh, I was refused entry to India and ordered to book the first flight back to my port of origin.
In a competitive, capitalist culture, the descriptor ‘brilliant’ tends to refer to somebody who makes connections others have not, or perhaps to have made them faster, or first. It is to burn the brightest, to out-do, to dazzle to the point of disbelief. Brilliance, in this sense, is the fake currency of the elite humanities academy – the fissile defence that protects against wrongdoing; the light that shines so brightly it cannot touch, nor recognise, shadow.