Can we save the lost soul of Australian politics?

The Paris Review, a literary journal, presently publishes two interviews in each issue. If you scan the list of interviewees, stretching back decades, you find many of the great names of our times: Borges, Sontag, de Beauvoir, Hemingway.

In the most recent edition you will find, appropriately, an interview with Australian writer Helen Garner. All of it is interesting – there is a marvellous moment of stunned realisation about a cello – but because the topic was already on my mind I was particularly struck by her description of where the angels in her novel Cosmo Cosmolino had come from.

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At a time of great emotional distress “… a strange presence would sometimes manifest itself behind me – I would feel something in the room, hovering behind my back … I used to call it to myself – the Mighty Force, because I felt that it was tremendously powerful but also benign. I knew that if I turned around and looked at it, if I acknowledged it, I’d have to go down on my knees and bow to it, and I was too scared to do that, and too proud.”

This recalled for me a passage in some ways its opposite, written by an author very different from Garner, the late Hilary Mantel. When Mantel was seven, she sensed something evil in a garden. How, she was not sure. “There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave … It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move … I beg it, stay away, stay away.”

One passage seems to be about good, the other about evil. Both events are described with forceful language; these are experiences that mark a person, that return later in other forms. You can attempt to categorise them – as religious, or supernatural, or as psychological sublimations – but the categories fall short. What binds them together is that they are descriptions of events and feelings ultimately irreducible.

Australians are not good, mostly, at acknowledging the irreducible. I had coffee, recently, with a man writing something interesting about politics and religion, and he asked me how I thought Australians felt about these issues. “Embarrassed,” I said, at least in terms of how we speak about them, which in turn is part of a larger reluctance to appear too earnest. We took this from the British, and then (as usual) took it further. I suspect this has something to do with the shabby way in which we treat the arts, too: we are hopelessly sheepish when it comes to the ineffable.

And yet it is part of life and cannot be extinguished. So where does the irreducible go, in politics? Not into religion, which, when it enters political discussion, is these days almost completely reduced to a discussion of rules, specifically who can still discriminate and who can be discriminated against. The most remarkable thing about the Essendon saga, in which Andrew Thorburn was CEO for a day or two before resigning after revelations about a church he chaired, was how tinny it finally felt. There were attempts to make it about big questions of human rights, but as a friend of mine remarked: what, the human right to be a CEO?

It does not surprise me that the above descriptions come from writers. Many say they do not know what they will write until they write it. They step into the dark, believing not only that they will find their path but that this is the only way it can be found. It is an exercise in faith.

For decades now, the way we talk about politics has been heading in the opposite direction. Once, we talked about politicians and their “visions”, a word with unmistakably religious overtones. But when ideology became a dirty word, politicians began to talk about politics as a series of limited technical problems that could be “fixed” by doing what the experts said. Of course, this was nonsense: somebody has to decide what is a problem and what isn’t, and that is always a question of your values. The rhetoric served to disguise the workings of belief, not banish them.

So belief never really went away; it was just that our politicians stopped talking about it properly. It was inevitable that the full force of feeling associated with belief would eventually erupt. And so it has: in the absence of politicians offering belief structures to explain the world and justify their actions we got fake news, conspiracy theories and polarisation, which offer some of the belonging political movements once did.

It is clear, then, that the meeting of feelings with politics is dangerous. We did not need recent history to tell us this. In a nuanced essay for The New York Review of Books in mid-2020, Jon Baskin described the uses fascism made of feelings, and particularly of the appeal of the collective “we”. One response has been an attempt to banish sentiment from the political sphere (our technocracy is part of that). But what if feeling can’t be banished from politics? In that case, isn’t our duty to integrate it in a useful way? Baskin proposes another option: acknowledging “the centrality of symbolism and emotion to political life” while directing it towards the importance of the individual conscience, rather than the collective.

After all, isn’t one of the most important and mysterious features of life the way that most of us seem to know the right thing to do, even when we don’t do it? Too often, technocratic language gives us permission to push such concerns aside. We punish children (refugees, the children of IS fighters) in the interests of “national security”. We refuse to lift people out of poverty because “we can’t afford it”. We find it difficult to talk openly about morality except when we want to give the label “evil” to those we would rather not attempt to understand on any level (terrorists, people smugglers). We ignore the irreducible or deploy it ignobly.

Australian Zahra Ahmed with her son Ibrahim in the al-Hawl camp in north-east Syria in 2019. They were among many Australian women and children detained for their association with Islamic State fighters.Credit:Kate Geraghty

A politician is not a priest or a writer, and I do not expect Anthony Albanese to suddenly begin talking about encounters with spiritual or supernatural presences. But a politician does share with priests and writers a concern with everything that humans do. We live in a time of crisis; meaning eludes us and our trust in politicians and institutions is low. Feelings make their presence known, one way or another. Finding new ways to talk about the full breadth of being human is one of the challenges facing our political leaders, whether they realise it or not.

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