In a softer light: Peter Singer

He’s been picketed by the disabled, vilified by the right-to-lifers, and ridiculed by meat-eaters. But in exploring his own past, Peter Singer might just have found a way to speak to us in a voice we’re willing to hear. Karen Kissane reports.

Even smart people have their dumb moments. Just ask Peter Singer. There he was, a great man of ideas, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, the father of animal liberation. And then he went and wrote a review of a book on bestiality for the online sex magazine

In his piece, Singer wrote about the history of sex between people and animals (men prefer horses and calves, apparently; women favour dogs) and told us more than we ever needed to know about human congress with poultry. He said sex across species was not normal but it did not offend human dignity because we are animals too. The story’s headline was “Heavy Petting” and the photo was of a dog with a lolling tongue.

Singer loves throwing intellectual firecrackers, preferably at smug moral certainties. But this one backfired. “The love that dared not bark its name,” sneered one American critic. Another website announced Singer’s engagement to an orangutan which, it said, came in the wake of a marriage to a chicken that had ended tragically on their wedding night.

Hearing that story, Singer winces and smiles weakly. “People got some laughs out of it, anyway. That review was maybe something that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. It was probably one taboo I should have left covered up. It gives another cudgel to beat me with to all my opponents. As well as reading that ‘Singer is the man who wants to kill babies, and who thinks chimpanzees have more rights than humans, and who thinks we should give all our money to dictators in Africa who transfer it to their Swiss bank accounts’, there’s now, ‘And he thinks it’s OK to have sex with animals’.”

But not, of course, to eat them. Singer – who first hit the headlines with his 1975 book Animal Liberation – remains one of the world’s most famously committed vegetarians.

The “controversial” Peter Singer, as he is often known, is more used to outraging people than amusing them. He wants to expand the rights available to animals and shrink those available to humans. He says it is sometimes ethical to kill babies and other people who are sick or disabled; that the tyranny of humans over animals causes suffering that is as morally significant as the misery caused by the tyranny of white people over black; that it would sometimes be as ethical to conduct experiments on disabled humans as it would on apes.

Philosophically, Singer is a utilitarian. Utilitarians are like the utterly rational Mr Spock in Star Trek; they believe moral decisions should be made by calculating what choice would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Singer’s version is called “preference” utilitarianism: the goal is to be achieved by trying to satisfy individual preferences.

His logic allows little room for human love. Singer insists that ideas be separated from emotion. As a result, his work sometimes reads as if he lacks imagination (can he really believe that parents are incapable of loving a child with Down syndrome?) or has a dead spot in his emotional motor (would you see your mother as a “non-person” if she developed dementia?)

This is the riddle of Peter Singer: he is an ethicist whose preoccupation is minimising suffering but who sometimes seems without compassion. Is the man as cold as the philosopher sounds? Does Singer’s heart always follow his uncompromising head or, in real life, does impartial theory sometimes give way to softer, messier human values?

Singer is a career academic. He studied philosophy at Melbourne University and in 1977, aged 31, was appointed to a chair of philosophy at Monash. Later, he was a founding director of the university’s Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1999 he moved to New York to become the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Centre for Human Values.

He has taken research leave from Princeton for 12 months and is back in Melbourne to see friends and family and promote One World: The Ethics of Globalisation, the first of two new books due in the next few months.

He is 56 but doesn’t look it. His forehead is lined and his grey hair wispy, but he is lean and rangy and moves like a much younger man. He dresses for his conscience, leather-free: woven belt, plastic watch, black running shoes. He does not smile often but has a habit of raising his eyebrows to reveal a wry gleam of amusement behind his glasses. He chooses lemon-ginger herbal tea and a banana muffin to sustain him through our interview, which starts in a coffee shop in Richmond.

Singer has three adult daughters – a linguist, a would-be film maker and a community development graduate – with his wife Renata Diamond. Diamond, who is now writing her second novel, previously worked as a history teacher and as an editor with Community Aid Abroad.

The two met in a history tutorial at Melbourne University and married in 1968, when Singer was only 22. Wasn’t that young?
“I didn’t really see getting married as a totally irrevocable commitment,” he says coolly. “Deciding to have children was more of a commitment. Until we decided to have children together, this was something we could just end if we wanted to.”

Does his wife agree with all his philosophical ideas? “Certainly not all of them. That would be boring. But I would say a lot of our ideas were formed together. It’s not a question of her agreeing with my views.”

His children sound less respectful. “None of them would do philosophy. They all thought that what I did was stupid, just all of this academic stuff. None of them wanted that.”

Some of the language swirling around Singer is hot – he’s been called a “prophet of death” and “Himmler in academic tweeds” – but the man is cool. Mild-mannered but immoveable, he talks calmly, pausing to choose his words, and rarely concedes a point. He has a quiet charm and delivers his sometimes-brutal arguments in a tone of sweet reason; it is probably why he gets gentler treatment from journalists who meet him in person than from those who criticise his work from a distance.

In One World, Singer examines the ethics of world politics and how the selfishness of the West deprives millions. He argues that the momentum of international politics is towards world government, and that this is a good thing because it would prevent an egocentric America from turning globalisation to its own ends.

His vision of nations uniting to provide economic and legal justice will irritate big corporations and conservative politicians. It might even anger some in his heartland of the left because he concludes that free trade has helped many poor people. “But it has still left out the very poorest, perhaps 600 million people, who it hasn’t helped at all,” he says.

Singer criticises the World Trade Organisation for allowing economic issues to override all other values, including environmental questions, the rights of workers and animal welfare. “I am not against globalisation in itself, (but) I am arguing for a very different form of globalisation.”

He is a mix of romantic and cynic. He wants a better, kinder world, but his view of human nature is grim. One World argues that humans are hard-wired for genocide. Singer cites an obscure Biblical text about God telling Israelites to slaughter a neighbouring tribe as evidence that massacres are not due to social conditions such as poverty, or personal histories of child abuse. Centuries of mass killings have combined with genetic selection to ensure that now
“a significant number of human males have the potential to be perpetrators of genocide”.

He would include terrorists in that group. “That’s why it’s possible for organisations with a terrorist ideology to recruit people to do these things. There have always been people willing to do that, to kill innocent people. But what we have now are changes in technology that make it possible for those people to kill far larger numbers than they did before, flying jets filled with aviation fuel into buildings.”

Still, he thinks Australia should try to restrain America’s hawks as they push for war with Iraq, wants Israel out of the West Bank, and is no harder on Muslim fundamentalism than on any other kind. “I’m pretty hostile to any kind of religious fundamentalism. It means that people don’t really think independently, and take their views from some source without question, and I think that’s very dangerous.”

Singer was not even in his teens when he decided the central tenet of his philosophy: that there is no God. When his parents offered him a bar mitzvah at 13 he declined because of his atheism. He has since written that the degree of suffering in the world suggests that, if there is a God, he’s not worth worshipping.

Singer’s father went to temple on the high holy days but his mother was sceptical about religion. Singer did his own questioning. “I went to Scotch College and every morning we had religious assembly and it was pretty boring. And I used to read the Old Testament, quite often. There was much more sex; there was a lot of bloodshed, including a lot of bloodshed carried out by the ‘goodies’, the Israelites, with God’s approval.

“Also in the New Testament there were puzzling things that Jesus did, like cursing the fig tree and making it wither because it didn’t have any figs on it. Really petulant. And you had to wonder why no one ever talked about these passages, and how they were supposed to be reconciled with the idea that Jesus was God or everything he did was wonderful.”

Other central strands in his thinking can be traced back to the Holocaust and its effect on his family. Singer’s parents, who were Austrian Jews, escaped the Nazis in 1938. His grandparents were not so lucky and three of them died in concentration camps.

His mother, a doctor, and his father, who owned a small import business, arrived in Australia in 1938. Although German was their first language, they refused to speak it in the Hawthorn home in which Singer and his older sister Joan, now a lawyer, grew up. “I think they wanted me to be a proper dinki-di Australian, and they felt that if they spoke German to me I might be more of a foreigner. Perhaps also, after the war, they didn’t want to be speaking German in public.”

Their values were more conventional than Singer’s, he says, “but one thing I clearly took from them was a strong opposition to anything really racist or highly nationalist, because that was what had driven them out of their country. Appeal to irrational things like ‘the blood’, and so on”.

Organised religion, he says, “leads to close-minded sectarianism; you can see how much killing there is in the world as a result of people saying, ‘I’m Catholic; you’re Protestant. I’m Christian; you’re Muslim’.” Or I’m Aryan, you’re Jewish? “Yeah.”

What he is trying to do is develop a secular ethic – a principled way of living that does not rely on ideas of God or human sacredness – that acknowledges today’s realities. That includes, he insists, facing the truth about decisions we already make about life and death, such as illicit euthanasia of hopelessly suffering patients, or withdrawing food and water from severely disabled babies.

At the core of Singer’s philosophy is the idea of “sentience”, which he defines as the capacity to suffer or to experience enjoyment. He has argued that sick or disabled people who lack sentience are “non-persons”. Parents of severely disabled babies should, he says, have the option of killing them within 28 days of birth. “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” he has written. “Very often it is not wrong at all.” It is a position that has caused outrage in modern Germany, where he has been accused of echoing the Nazi doctrine of eugenics, “life unworthy of life”.

Singer also argues that we should be morally impartial, giving to those in greatest need or those who can benefit others rather than giving priority to those closest to us. So, who would he save if two people were drowning in a pond – the three-year-old daughter who loves and trusts him, or the scientist with the cure for AIDS in his head? “Well, that’s really where you ought to save the guy with the formula to cure AIDS,” he says.

Is that what he would do? “I don’t know. Perhaps not. But I think it’s what you ought to do.”

Singer has never been one for questions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He has won his place in the limelight through a kind of journalistic savvy: a nose for controversy, meticulous research and a blunt writing style that makes his views accessible to millions. Like our other famous intellectual export, Germaine Greer, he sometimes seems to take an almost adolescent pleasure in using his erudition to shock.

Singer does seem to love attention. He says he abandoned his original master’s topic in history because it made people’s eyes glaze over at parties. He switched to philosophy because he knew he could always get people talking about the big questions.

He is entirely at home with the media. The day we meet, we have to race to get him to a radio interview. He strides down busy Swan Street, Richmond, holding my tape recorder at chest height and talking into it without a trace of embarrassment. At the ABC studios he sits behind the mike, dons headphones and starts fiddling with switches like a pilot in his cockpit. He’s not quite a media junkie, perhaps, but someone who enjoys the hit and is expert with a fit. And no media gig is likely to hold terrors for someone who has already featured in America’s 60 Minutes and New Yorker magazine.

His books have included one titled Practical Ethics, but aspects of his own life suggest that some of his ethics are not as practical as he would like them to be. More than once, the man and the philosopher have parted company, and now even the philosopher wants to moderate some of his pronouncements.

“Some of my early stuff was perhaps insensitive to people with disabilities,” he admits of his 1985 book with Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? “I would like to be able to start afresh so that this preconception that I am this monster who hates people with disabilities and thinks they all ought to be killed would be avoided. I would write differently now about Down syndrome than I did in 1985. I guess I’m more open to the idea that parents might well think that having a child with Down syndrome is a blessing for them.”

He has softened partly because of his acquaintance with a disabled woman, Anne McDonald, whom he has known for more than 16 years. McDonald has severe cerebral palsy and it was assumed, wrongly, that she also had an intellectual disability. In 1979 she became a cause celebre when she was rescued from a Melbourne institution by one of its staff, Rosemary Crossley. McDonald has said that she likes Singer, “but he doesn’t think about individuals. We are all just a category to him.”

Singer still thinks he was fundamentally right. “Anne said to me at one stage she thinks it would have been better if she’d been killed,” Singer says. “She supports that view because what she had to go through at
St Nicholas was so awful that it would have been better for her to be killed at birth.”

After some prodding, though, he does admit that, “She doesn’t feel like that now. Rosemary is able to give her lots of love and care and quality of life … (Anne) thinks that (I was) too quick to accept that some lives are not worth living.” Isn’t it true that McDonald’s story could be read not as a justification for euthanasia but as a warning about misdiagnosis and the need for proper care for disabled people? “Sure,” he says. “But you sometimes have to think what you will do given the world the way it is.”

In discussions like these Singer ties himself in knots. He wants to move away from the severity of an earlier position but he’s damned if he’ll give up the general principle that underpinned it. Take his suggestion that strangers should have just as big a call on your generosity as your loved ones. Doesn’t this empty human relationships of all meaning?

Again, Singer equivocates. He says it is still true, “in a sense”, that we should not favour those close to us above other people. “But I guess I now think it’s only one side of the picture. I still think if someone can do that, and is prepared to look for what produces the best consequences, we should admire such a person. But we would also inevitably think that’s a pretty odd person.”

Does that mean he was an odd person when he was espousing it? “I never really did that to the ultimate degree. I never really did treat the children of strangers as well as I did my own children.”

Life offered Singer another lesson in seeing things differently when his mother, who has since died, developed severe Alzheimer’s disease. Critics pointed out that he was helping keep alive someone who lacked “personhood”. He was also supporting her with money that, according to his theories, would be better spent saving Third World lives. “Perhaps it’s more difficult than I thought before,” he admitted in one interview, “because it is different when it’s your mother.”

Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent American Catholic priest, journal editor and critic of Singer, crowed that, “It is a cockeyed theory that is embarrassed by a son’s caring for his elderly mother.”
Singer says his theories were not at all embarrassed. He dissects the issue with forensic chill. “I certainly think (people with severe Alzheimer’s) are not persons. That means they don’t have the same right to life, intrinsically, that a person does. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether you should or shouldn’t end their lives. There are many non-human animals that are not persons either, but that doesn’t mean you should kill them. It all depends on the particular quality of the life that’s being lived; whether their lives have pain and distress and suffering, or whether they have certain pleasures in them.”

He says the more serious objection was that he spent money on his mother that could have saved the lives of people in developing countries. “I don’t always do what I think is the right thing. So there are some sacrifices I ought to make about money I spend on myself, and others (related to spending) on my mother. I wouldn’t attempt to argue that it was morally better to spend the money on my mother than on helping strangers.”

What sort of relationship did this man have with his mother?
A close one, according to fellow bio-ethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini, whose master’s thesis was supervised by Singer. Tonti-Filippini is Catholic, with very different views from Singer’s, but he speaks of Singer with great warmth. “Peter has a great sense of humour. He’s quite unlike his public image, where he’s always looking for an argument. I knew his mother and his mother was like that, too. She worked with him for a while. There was a kind of love of a verbal stoush in both of them.”

Tonti-Filippini believes much of what Singer advocates is evil, but says Singer himself leads a moral life. Don’t confuse the man with his pronouncements, he advises. “Peter’s principles don’t touch Peter’s emotions. They are two separate things.”

Singer’s views on animals, for example, are intellectual and not related to feelings about them. Tonti-Filippini tells the story of a passionately vegan uni student who found meat-eating sickening. Singer organised a regular lift for her, with a rendezvous point that caused much amusement in the Monash philosophy department. “Peter arranged to pick her up outside a butcher’s shop, which didn’t mean anything to Peter but meant a huge amount to her.”

But the Singer of practice is not always at odds with the Singer of theory. In 1992 he was charged with trespassing on then prime minister Paul Keating’s piggery after chaining himself to the stalls of sows he claimed were tethered so tightly that the chains were cutting into their flesh.

In Victoria, he has been a driving force behind upgraded animal welfare legislation. “He was instrumental in changing the culture and then the law,” says Glenys Oogjes, executive director of Animals Australia. “He’s got real vision for the movement and he’s very generous, too, financially.”

Singer also donates one-fifth of his income to international charities. Still, it is less than he recommends; he told the readers of The New York Times that their affluent self-indulgence was killing Third World people. Westerners, he wrote, should keep only the $US30,000 a year they required to live simply and give all other income away.

He has also been central to the acceptance of in-vitro fertilisation in Victoria. Says IVF specialist Professor Alan Trounson, “He was one of the pioneers in liberal thinking about when life begins. He had very strong views that a ball of cells that had no sentience (an embryo) was not worth the consideration that a sentient animal was.”

Tonti-Filippini also thinks Singer was influential, though for quite different reasons. “Repeatedly, through debates about IVF and the Medical Treatment Act, there were politicians who dissociated themselves from Peter Singer’s views. He helped show them where that extreme view went.”

More light might be thrown on the man behind the ideas when Singer’s next book comes out in February. Pushing Time Away is the story of his maternal grandfather, who died in a concentration camp. The title comes from a sentence in a letter his grandfather wrote to his wife: “What binds us pushes time away.”

Yes, he admits reluctantly (he hates questions about his private self), writing this book changed him. “I know a lot more about my family. I’ve become a lot more interested in connections; I see quite distant relatives in New York, for example, who I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before.”

Will this change in his life have an impact on his ideas? In How Are We to Live? Singer wrote about a real case of the altruism of strangers towards his own family. In 1938, his parents needed a sponsor abroad if they were to escape the Nazis. An uncle in America refused their request. In desperation, Singer’s mother turned to an Australian acquaintance, a man she had met only once. He agreed to sponsor the family. There’s a real chance that Singer is alive today only because of that generosity. Little wonder he values altruism towards strangers so highly.

Midway through our interview, life gave me a lesson in how to see it his way. Trying to grab a taxi to ferry us to his next appointment, I dashed into the middle of a busy road and found myself caught between lanes of traffic. “We’re going to get killed here,” I called out nervously.

“No we won’t,” he said confidently (as well he might, given his position of safety on the footpath). “And anyway, I’d rescue you.” — One World: The Ethics of Globalisation (Text, $28) is out now.

First published in The Age.

The tyranny of history: Geoffrey Blainey

GEOFFREY Blainey is a more careful man these days. He edges around explosive topics such as race, wary of anything that might lead to “Blainey ignites debate” headlines. He screens his telephone callers with an answering machine and insists on being interviewed on what he calls “neutral ground”, away from his home. “Security problems,” he mutters cryptically.

He chooses the kiosk in the centre of the Fitzroy gardens and with old-world courtesy is there before the appointed time, sitting outside with the camellias and the birdsong, carrying a just-in-case umbrella for Melbourne’s spring weather. With his navy blazer, diffident manner and white-haired comb-over, he has the air of a retired country doctor or lawyer.

In fact, he is neither retired nor retiring. Australia’s most public and most controversial historian might be 70 but he has never been busier. He is chairing the national council for the centenary of Federation, writing an autobiography for Penguin, updating his classic The Tyranny of Distance and enjoying the success of his latest book, A Short History of the World, which is into its fourth reprint. Tomorrow he begins delivering the ABC’s prestigious Boyer lectures for 2001 on the theme “This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions”.

“I think it’s a mixed blessing to give them,” he says, chuckling. “Your views may be picked up … ” And used against you? “Yes. I’m pleased to have been asked but some part of me thinks it would have been better if I hadn’t accepted them. One would like to set out one’s views in such lots as one thinks appropriate rather than in six Sundays in a row.”

The man, like his speech, is formal and reserved. He laughs, in a quiet, patrician sort of way, only when analysing how the world responds to him, like when he is asked if his lectures will be controversial: “That remains to be seen.

“I myself don’t go in for controversies. It sounds preposterous, I know, (but) I don’t go out of my way to say things that will arouse antagonism. It’s just that a lot of my views are different to other people’s views, and a lot of my views I’ve never expressed for fear of” – here comes that chuckle again – “widening the range of controversy. That’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about religion.”

There are two views on Blainey and controversy. For those who admire him as a standard-bearer of the new right, Blainey is a martyr to freedom of speech who was effectively forced out of his position as professor of history at Melbourne University in 1988 for telling unpalatable truths about race:
that multiculturalism divided and weakened society, that levels of Asian immigration were testing the limits of tolerance, that land rights for Aborigines would mean apartheid.

His critics, on the other hand, fear his remarks fueled racism and see him not as a victim of controversy but as its beneficiary. “It’s done him wonders,” says Henry Reynolds, now research professor in history at the University of Tasmania. Reynolds, who has written of the damage done to Aborigines by colonialism, holds what Blainey would call a “black armband” view of Australia’s history; Reynolds believes it better than a “white blindfold”.

Reynolds says controversy has made Blainey a household name. “He’s the darling of the right, he’s in high standing with the government, he’s been given an AC (Companion of the Order of Australia); why would anyone think it’s cost him?

“As I see it he’s highly respected and, as a member of the Melbourne Club, is a friend of many corporate leaders. He’s comfortably entrenched in the Melbourne establishment, and what better place could there be in Australia?”

Another historian, who did not wish to be named, was irritated by the suggestion that a symposium held in Blainey’s honor earlier this year could be seen as an attempt to bring him out of an intellectual gulag: “I didn’t know he was in one. He seems to me very well published, very well reviewed and to be given ample newspaper space whenever he wants it – if that’s `in the cold’…” There is no doubt, though, that in the eyes of many on the left he remains unshriven.

Blainey says that his decision to take early retirement was a good one because life on campus had become difficult and now he has more freedom to speak. Was he hurt? “I accept that if you’re standing by a hot fire you’re going to get singed.” If he had foreseen the consequences, would he have kept his mouth shut? “It’s impossible to answer, isn’t it? If I say `Yes, I wouldn’t have said anything’, you portray yourself as a coward, don’t you?”
`This land is all horizons’ is a quote from poet and journalist Mary Gilmore, who seems an unlikely hero for the conservative Blainey given that she was a socialist and a feminist. But she was also one of the most revered of the first generation of nationalist writers, and Blainey is a fervent nationalist.

He says many of the topics in his Boyer lectures, as in his books, are part-geographical. One is on the tension between conservation and earlier goals of population and national development: “In the 1950s and ’60s it was believed that we had to get a big population in order to defend the country and that the people should be widely spread to aid defence and development.

“I think the solution we’ve adopted in recent years as a nation is that large parts of tropical Australia have been almost quarantined from development by putting them as nature reserves or Aboriginal collectives. That may turn out to be a solution that the rest of the world may recognise; on the other hand, the rest of the world might say, `here’s all this space, and you’re not using it’. I’ve got another one on the divide between the city and the country … The economic grievances have been here for a long time but the cultural gap is more important. One of the gaps is that (country people) have got a different attitude to defence. The further away you live from the city the more you’re interested in defence.”

Blainey will also speak on nationalism and heroes. His lecture on the rise of the green movement (“though green is the wrong word for a country as brown as this”) has already caused some twitches at the ABC. Blainey will argue that today’s politicised greens were preceded by Australians such as the poet Dorothea Mackellar who first attempted to create widespread affection for the landscape among its European settlers.

“Someone in the ABC expressed concern before I’ve even given the lectures about my distinction between between `dark greens’ and `light greens’,” he says, “presumably because they’re dark greens and don’t like the word. I think they would prefer to think there’s one united green movement.”

He does share some common ground with greens in that he has a sense of awe about the natural world. In his Short History, he writes more than once of what it must have been like for generations of humans who slept outside under the stars. “I think a sense of wonder about the universe is a religious feeling,” he says.

“The dark greens … believe the world is in a state of crisis and that the green issues transcend any other issue. I think the dark greens are profoundly religious, in an unorthodox way in 19th-century terms, but they’ve got a belief that there is an inner harmony, and they may or they may not believe in the creator but they see (the world) as a wonderful task completed. I’m a light green; I’ve got a strong sense of the wonder of the universe.”

When he was recently in outback WA for centenary celebrations, his train stopped at a rail station in the middle of the night to watch an Aboriginal concert. “I wanted to get away from the lights and the train to see the stars, because the stars in the desert, it’s one of the great sights in the world.”

Blainey developed his feeling for landscape and space growing up in country Victoria – Leongatha, Geelong and Ballarat – as the second of four children of a non-conformist Methodist minister. He’s still religious, he says hesitantly, “without quite knowing what to do with it. I don’t find any denomination I wish to belong to”.

As a child he would use his father’s membership card to borrow travel books from the local mechanics’ institute to study how they were written. “I had a very strong desire to write when I was very young, without knowing it.” At 13 he won a scholarship to board at Wesley College and later did his PhD in history at Melbourne University.

He becomes vague when asked about his political development but confesses to an adolescent admiration for Chifley, the train driver who managed to become a Labor prime minister, and even a passing flirtation with socialism until he was 17, when the attempt to nationalise the banks jolted him out of it.

Blainey has always been known as a private man. The forces that shaped his personal history may or may not become documented in the autobiography he has partly written – to the age of 40 – and now set aside. He has several explanations for why he put it on hold: he thought he’d done enough; he wants to come back to it later to check if his recollection of events is accurate; he finds writing his own story boring. “When you’re writing a book about something else, you’re researching all the time and finding out things you didn’t know before, and it’s exciting. Your own life – your memory has sorted it out already, hasn’t it?”
Or perhaps, for someone whose writing has been preoccupied with the verifiable external world, the more internal landscape of autobiography is difficult. He says he is surprised to recognise, in the course of this interview, how his rural background and family’s views have strongly influenced his own politics: “You’ve given me this awful realisation that I’ve just been walking around in circles all these years. There’s the headline: `Blainey runs on spot: No progress!”‘

HE does hold firmly to ideas. He has written a new chapter for The Tyranny of Distance, defending his thesis from today’s idea that the tyrant is now dead, killed off by modern communications and travel.

“You could have put that argument in 1850 when the telegraph was invented; you could have said distance was dead when aeroplanes started to move across the world. But the main reason why Sydney has jumped ahead of Melbourne as the financial capital in the last 40 years is because Sydney is three hours nearer the outside world on most plane routes. I think distance is still very important.”

Blainey believes his professional strengths include the great variety of histories he has tackled and the clarity of his writing: “In fact, I wouldn’t be in much trouble if I wrote obscurely, would I? I could say what I liked and no one would take any notice.” Tom Stannage, professor of history at Western Australia’s Curtin University, disagreed with Blainey’s views on race and land rights but says: “It’s hard to think of a major issue in Australian life that he hasn’t touched on.”

Stannage says there have been times when reactions to his outspoken views have caused concern for Blainey’s personal safety, but Blainey never held grudges himself. Stannage contributed to a book that criticised Blainey, but Blainey later cheerfully agreed to lecture Stannage’s students on the public role of the historian. “He argued the case for the historian to engage with the central issues of the day and to interpret the past as it bore on them with as much integrity and control as you can muster.”

At the end of the interview, Blainey suggests taking a particular path out of the gardens because its flower borders are in bloom. Before parting he stops before a a bunya-bunya and launches into a dissertation on the way Aborigines used to gather around it for corroborees. Ever the pedagogue; ever the sense of history.

The 2001 Boyer Lectures will be broadcast over six consecutive Sundays starting tomorrow night, November 11 at 5pm on Radio National.


Geoffrey Blainey, historian

Born: Melbourne, 1930.

Educated: Melbourne University.

Career Highlights: The books The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Short History of the World.

Lives: Melbourne, with his wife, biographer Ann Blainey.

First published in The Age.

Selling Australia’s universities


WHEN Charles Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby, the novel featuring sadistic boarding school principal Wackford Squeers, outraged Yorkshire schoolmasters threatened to sue him for defamation. Each protested that he must be the man on whom Dickens had based Squeers – confirming how close to the truth Dickens was about the less savory habits of the British boarding schools of the day.

Earlier this year, Victoria’s academics confirmed something about their institutions when The Age’s education section ran satiric articles about a mythical ‘Oz Learn University’. At competitive, market-oriented Oz Learn, academics ran garage sales and cake stalls to raise funds; signed product endorsement agreements with companies in the areas of their research; billed students for five-minute consultations; and based pass rates not on merit, but on how many fee-paying students were needed to balance the departmental budget. Disciplines that failed to return a profit were put into the hands of receivers.

Oz Learn Uni was eventually “right-sized” into an on-line operation that did not even need a campus, so its site was turned into an educational theme park for tourists. Its vice-chancellor decided “they could sell university memorabilia and academic dress and make use of the Great Hall as a photo opportunity for tourists, wearing gowns and holding parchments they could buy at adjoining stalls. Perhaps he was sentimental, but it preserved ‘the idea of the university’ – a phrase he’d heard somewhere”.

The real university, in other words, was history.

Academics from all over Victoria rang The Age and one another, convinced that the author, known only by a pen-name, must be describing their campus. In fact the author was from interstate (retired Adelaide academic Kay Rollison), but her stories resonated because the kind of changes she mocked are being experienced nationwide.

According to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, our “public” university system now receives less than half of its funding from government; private schools get a greater proportion of their income from government than public universities do. Institutions have been forced to cut costs (Exit, stage left, teachers, subjects and small tutorials) and to compete like businesses for enrolments and private funding (Enter, stage right, the fee-paying local or international student, on-line courses and the corporate sugar daddy).

Why should the rest of us care about these storms in an ivory tower? Because the nation’s intellectual and economic health is directly linked to the state of its universities. What happens in our universities today has a profound effect on the Australia of tomorrow.

And many are now arguing that our universities’ need to turn a quick buck is undermining Australia’s fledgling attempts to develop into a post-industrial “knowledge economy” in which information and innovation, rather than old-style manufacturing, is predicted to be the big job-spinner.

Like Superman, universities have traditionally been devoted to “the pursuit of truth”. They do this through their twin roles of teaching and research. But the integrity of both activities has suffered as a side-effect of the changes designed to make universities more efficient and more self-sufficient.

Teaching standards have been dumbed down; basic science and humanities subjects are languishing; newer universities are struggling to compete; and commercial interests are skewing research and strangling publication of research findings.

It’s a far cry from “the idea of a university” canvassed by 19th century Oxford don John Henry Newman. Newman saw the aim of education as producing cultured people rather than providing them with a professional qualification.

Researchers Simon Marginson and Mark Considine recently co-authored The Enterprise University, a study of 17 Australian campuses struggling to reinvent themselves following the retreat of government from tertiary funding. They found a system in crisis.

Marginson says, “I think universities are losing their sense of mission and identity, quite fundamentally. There’s a tendency to think that playing the (funding) game right is what’s important now, rather than producing good and useful things.

“Only 38 per cent of staff are now performing in academic capacities; it used to be about 50 per cent but the others are all now organising the university in one way or another. Universities now have to market courses and raise funds from alumni and conduct a corporate-style relationship with the world.”

He warns that if universities do not return to valuing their core work – teaching and research – their loss of identity will contribute to a weakening of the national identity, which itself is an important “commodity”: “It’s what Australia brings to
a globalised marketpace; it’s what will attract the rest of the world to you. To put it crudely, you (need) a cultural brand.”

They concluded that corporate style of management under which universities now labor is, in any case, unnecessary: “You don’t have to be a business in order to serve business,” Marginson says.

The shotgun marriage of traditional scholarly aims with snappy corporate values has certainly made for uneasy bedfellows. One academic describes the language of corporate plans and troop-rallying slogans as “reminiscent of Japanese car workers singing company songs at best, or the Chinese proletariat with Mao’s red book at worst .. .”

Paul Rodan, an educational consultant and honorary research associate in political and social inquiry at Monash, says of sloganeering, “Given that much of the academic profession is about precision of language and avoidance of grandiose unsubstantiated statements, expecting them to embrace such drivel is like expecting to find John Howard at a nude beach.”

Academics have been even more alienated by expectations that they themselves should play spin-doctor to protect their “product’s” image. An academic who did not wish to be named said of a major Melbourne university, “I’ve been at open days where I’ve had to lie to people about what the facilities are like. ‘We read last week that your university has had funding cuts. Has that affected your faculty?’ ‘Oh no, our facilities and services and teaching are better than ever.’ It’s a lie.

“If I were to take you to some of our science laboratories you would think they were from some flashback movie of the 1960s. If the labs have been run down, and staff-student ratios used to be 10 to 1 and now they’re 15 to 1, it’s very difficult to argue that you’re offering the same quality as you were five or ten years ago. But of course no one will admit on any public record or glossy handout that funding cuts have had any effect because it undermines the ‘competitiveness’ of the ‘product’ in the ‘market’.”
AN ACADEMIC from another large Melbourne campus says: “There’s definitely a strong element of dishonesty in (university managements’) own rhetoric. Right through the system, when people talk about `quality’ they seem to mean `PR’. There’s no thought and no serious funding put into it.”

He says his university advertised a viticulture course for a regional campus. “The (campus) had no one qualified to teach it but were told the course had to go ahead because it had been trumpetted as a pioneering initiative.

“Then they were told that if they really couldn’t do it, they should get their students to do it electronically and access the course on another campus – but it turned out they didn’t have the computers for the students to do this. Most of the students ended up dropping out.”

But it is hard to imagine how universities would have managed if they had not aggressively sought other ways to earn money, with government funding falling from 80 to 90 per cent of their income in 1980 to less than 50 per cent today.

In 1996, the Howard government announced higher-education cuts of $800 million over three years. According to Julie Wells, coordinator of policy and research at the National Tertiary Education Union, in the 25 years since the Commonwealth took over responsibility for university funding, spending has averaged 1.15 per cent of GDP. If that average had been maintained, she says, there would be at least another $2 billion in the system today.

Universities are now doing more with less. Between 1996 and 1999, staff numbers were cut by 2056 (down 2.5 per cent) but student numbers rose by 52,834 (up 10.8 per cent). Most of this growth has been in fee-paying and marginally funded places, says Wells. “There are now 5000 fewer fully subsidised student places than there were in 1996.”

“The response from the Minister is, `But look, you’re getting more income than ever’,” says Stuart Hamilton, executive director of the vice-chancellor’s committee (AVCC). “That’s true, but it’s because we’re teaching more students. It’s not money for jam.”
Some good things have resulted from universities’ forced embrace of industry projects and fee-paying students. Australia is educating more people to tertiary level than ever before (686,200 in 1999, compared to 441,000 in 1989). Our 37 universities have forged new connections with industry and become more focused on what students need to equip them for a tough employment market; Melbourne University now offers its arts students a unit in “Managing work and projects”.

Tertiary education has become the nation’s second biggest export earner, bringing in $3.1 billion a year – from the sheep’s back to the academic’s back.

In the market, the customer is always right, and products must be adapted accordingly. In education, though, meeting customer demand can sometimes destroy the value of the commodity on sale. “I have had six academics from three different universities tell me they have allowed class standards lower than in the past; lower than they would lay down in good conscience,” says Alan Roberts, a former physicist and vice-president of the Association for the Public University. “A lot more do it but won’t admit it even to themselves.

“It’s a big temptation: Are academics going to hold to the standards of the past, in which people should be made to show they have the ability to go on to the next year, even though by doing so they risk the loss of students, the loss of staff and even redundancies that might include them? Students are only human; they naturally have a bias towards courses where the chance of passing or getting a credit is higher.”

A humanities academic, who recently resigned from one of Melbourne’s newer universities, reports blunt threats from his administration. “I have had people say to me, `If you don’t pass this thesis, your colleague is going to lose her job’. It came to a head in one particular case, but there was an ongoing, broader problem where I had been refusing to accept theses that weren’t of an acceptable standard and I was hauled over the coals for it.

“With post-graduate overseas students, pressure was placed on the department to accept them (into courses) regardless of their standard of English.”

Professor Stuart Macintyre, dean of arts at Melbourne University, acknowledges there is strain. “Standards are under pressure. That’s certainly true. There’s a subtle but insistent pressure to take people; I’m not saying people ignore the English language tests, but there is pressure to get (fee-paying international students) in.”

Several institutions, including Monash University and RMIT, have reorganised their grading system so that credits, distinctions and high distinctions can be achieved with lower scores than previously. At Monash, for example, 80 per cent is now enough for a high distinction, which previously required a score of 85 per cent.

“In response to market forces, universities are offering students shorter, quicker routes to post-graduate degrees,” says an academic, who did not wish to be named because he did not want to be seen as disparaging his university. “Take `executive MBAs’: MBAs used to require 16 credit points, two years of full-time study, but `executive MBAs’ only require 14 credit points.”

In research, funding changes are skewing activity. Tight government performance indicators award funding according to the number of papers academics publish in journals and the number of post-graduate students who finish a PhD. But the indicators value quantity over quality.

PAUL JAMES, president of the Association for the Public University and a lecturer in politics at Monash, warns that, “scientists are publishing masses of material but are being read less. We know they are publishing more because the statistics say they are, but they’re being cited less internationally because the citation indexes list fewer citations of Australia”.

Professor Brian Anderson, president of the Academy of Science, confirms this. “In respect of computer science, earlier figures showed that we used to be cited 16 per cent less than the world norm; more recent figures show we were being cited 28 per cent less than the world norm.”

There are other ways in which quantity is rewarded over quality, he says: “If you’ve got a doctoral student enrolled who’s doing badly, it’s not in the university’s interests to eject them with the present formula … And if university A produces two PhDs who get jobs at Cambridge and MIT and then come back from overseas, while university B produces four students who can only get jobs as taxi drivers, it’s university B who gets twice as much money.”

And from Julian Teicher, lecturer in the department of management at Monash: “If you write a book, that attracts very little of value for the university, even though it might take years, and is a significant form of endeavor. A book might count for, say, two points, which might be $3000. A journal article might count for the same, so which would you do?”

Melbourne’s Macintyre says the commercialisation of university research is also skewing the form of knowledge pursued, with little money available for basic or “curiosity” research because it offers less prospect of short-term profit.

“There are increasing industry links where (businesses) are either commissioning research or engaging (academics) as consultants or sponsoring research projects, where the activities of the academics are largely shaped by those opportunities. There’s also an `opportunity cost’: while you do research in these areas that you’re asked to examine, you will not be doing it in another area.”

“Basic” research sounds nerdish to the layman, but many discoveries have resulted from scientists being allowed to follow hunches or from unanticipated spin-offs. “It’s corny to talk about accidental serendipitous research but that’s the reality,” Rodan says. He cites a personal example: “I’ve got an artificial tooth with a titanium base – accidental discovery, I’m told, made when titanium was put in an animal for an experiment that had nothing to do with artificial hips or teeth.”

Anderson offers the Internet as an example of an industrially relevant development that no one foresaw when the computer first arrived.”Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, originally thought the computer was a scientific curiosity with a world market of four or five buyers … It’s hard to foresee the benefits that will flow from a piece of basic research.”
Some valuable areas of research are likely to be the poor relations of private funding: why would commercial companies be attracted to studies of sustainable agriculture or biological pest controls? How could they justify sponsoring expensive research into cures for Third World illnesses when Third World people cannot afford to pay Western prices for medicines?
Finally, the shift towards sponsored research undermines the notion of a worldwide community of scholars contributing to a general pool of knowledge. Macintyre says those commissioning research, such as industry or government, now often prevent publication of findings thought to be commercially or politically sensitive: “There’s an increasing number of theses embargoed in given fields because of commercialisation.”

In America, cash-strapped universities are pursuing intellectual property so fiercely that one academic wound up on the chain gang of a maximum security prison after colliding with his university over the rights to a discovery he made as an undergraduate.

Atlantic Monthly magazine reported that Petr Taborsky claimed he received permission from his dean at the University of South Florida to begin work on his own experiments at the end of a period of research sponsored by a private company. When he made a breakthrough, both the college and the company laid claim to it, and the university filed criminal charges against him for stealing university property. The state governor was embarrassed by the public debacle and later offered clemency, but Taborsky refused it on principle.

Lack of corporate sponsorship produces another set of problems: death or prolonged decline have been the fate of many basic sciences and humanities subjects over the past 15 years. Typically, philosophy, classics, languages, history, maths and physics have suffered, while vocationally oriented courses such as business, tourism and hospitality have boomed, according to Professor Malcolm Gillies, president of the Academy of Humanities.

“We don’t get a lot of corporate sponsorship in the philosophy department,” says Melbourne University lecturer Brian Scarlett drily. Even more drily: “When I was head of the department I suggested that we might negotiate to have the chair changed to the Carlton and United Breweries chair of philosophy, but (the then professor) took a dim view of it.”

At LaTrobe University, philosopher Robert Young says his department lost 40 per cent of its staff in five-and-a-half years. “(Management) would say they are caught in a situation where resources are being squeezed, so if they get the windfall gain of someone departing, they can either apply that to part of the university seen to be productive or they can reduce the costs
in an area now seen as too costly in terms of the students it can attract.”

Rodan believes that such changes mean “the universities as places of critical thought are vulnerable, because those areas that specialise in developing critical thought are the very ones that have been cut”.

Student choice means students are deciding too much of the content of courses, which are getting narrower, he says. The result when the “customer” only wants to do computing: “There are reports from (employers) in the IT area whingeing that these students have good technical skills but are incapable of analysis or communication.”

While Australia’s universities today accept that equipping students for the workforce must be a major goal, Gillies points out that students do not have to make an “either/or” choice between roundedness and vocational pragmatism: many now do combined degrees, such as arts with law, economics or engineering.

Perhaps the most serious problem is the possibility that some of the newer, poorer universities might not survive. Considine and Marginson found that power has been centralised in today’s universities; academic boards and other bodies that formerly had a lot of say in university governance had been brushed aside by managers who saw them as obstructionist.

Considine warns: “The university as an institution is now almost standing on one leg, and that leg is the effectiveness of the vice-chancellor and a small structure linked to sub-committees and council and perhaps one or two other people. That is an enormously risky and fragile way to plot the future of a complex organisation … It won’t be too long before we see some real disasters.”

Given the growing gap between rich and poor universities, this might include financial collapses, says Marginson. “It’s possible to see a medium-sized university outside the top 10 or so which has not got strong sources of non-government income – which is crucial now for your core funding – getting into a series of medium-sized deficits over a period of three or four years and (not being able to) work its way out of it under its own steam.”

BUT, after years of acceptance of change, there are signs of resistance. Melbourne’s philosophy department is to get three new staff because the new arts dean, Macintyre, is determined to protect the humanities.

In her inaugural address in October, Victoria’s newest vice-chancellor, Professor Ruth Dunkin, said the education sector had been forced to adopt the tools of corporate management regardless of their fitness. She argued that knowledge workers need to be managed differently from industrial workers in order to foster creativity and risk-taking.

And business-oriented experts are now warning that the top-down management style of the corporate model has had its day in both the private and the public sector. Alan Burton-Jones is an IT and management consultant and author of the book Knowledge Capitalism. Burton-Jones says that a post-industrial economy, in which managers must help staff produce ideas rather than widgets, requires a ditching of traditional management styles in favor of – wait for it – university-style collegiality.

“Knowledge management in industry is moving much more towards creativity and innovation,” he says. “The model that best suits that is the collegiality model, which is why Microsoft refers to the `Microsoft campus’. It’s moving away from the boss as manager, and towards the boss as coach; it’s high on creativity rather than efficiency of process. If universities are (emulating) management in the old sense, they are copying an industrial notion of management which is now being replaced.”

“The idea of a university” is open for discussion – again.

First published in The Age.

Who’s afraid of Harry Potter? Not me

IT’S time to stand up and be counted in defence of Harry Potter, boy wizard, publishing phenomenon, and magnet for the ire of Adults Who Know Better.

Harry is not a caricature. His stories are not plagiaristic pastiches unworthy to be deemed classics of children’s literature. And his exploits are not going to inspire kids into absconding at midnight to slaughter goats on altars to Beelzebub.

The Harry Potter books, by Scottish author Joanna Rowling, have taken off like a bushfire in a drought. Her warm, funny stories of an orphan who goes off to boarding school to study wizardry are being devoured by millions of eight to 14-year-olds.

In England, editions with adult black-and-white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen furtively reading the series on the train. Rowling’s earnings this year are estimated to reach more than $200million.

Her success has made fools of children’s publishers. Their accepted wisdom was that TV-watching kids would not have the attention span to read books as long as Rowling’s (more than 400 pages). She was rejected by nine publishers but, once in print, won immediate success – with children, that is.

The adult world is divided. Literati say the world of her books is thin, its imagery derivative and its structure flawed. Religious fundamentalists in America are trying to have the books banned from schools because the wizardry is “satanic”, and last month they were banned by the principal of a British primary school.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are about as satanic as the Brady Bunch on broomsticks. Parents can trust Rowling’s work: her values are friendship and kindness, honesty and courage.

Rowling fully deserves children’s affection. She writes a cracking yarn and has an intuitive understanding of a child’s emotional world. Children love her stories not just because they entertain but because they do what people have always needed stories to do: play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. On this level the Harry Potter books have great integrity.

Poor narrative structure? Harry is very much the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of universal mythic themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous foes are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Like Campbell’s heroes, Harry crosses a magical threshold into the other world (in his case, Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station), receives all kinds of unexpected supernatural aid and is transformed by his experience of victory over evil.

True, Rowling has picked like a magpie through the treasury of children’s stories. Her Every Flavor Beans, which offer all sorts of surprises to the taste buds, echo products from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula Le Guin wrote about a magic school in Wizard of Earthsea; Rowling’s giant spider Aragog might have descended from Tolkien’s Shelob, and her flying car – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely?

But in literature, little is truly original. Most stories are derivative in some way. Rowling has been criticised for copying Roald Dahl in her sketching of Harry as an orphan child abused by nasty relatives, but Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach mimicked an even earlier abused-orphan story, Cinderella.

James Joyce drew on the myth of Ulysses to produce his modern classic of the same name, and academics build whole careers detecting the allusions buried in it. Kids could play a similar game with the post-modern parodies in Harry Potter books. When they grow up and study media they’ll be told it’s called intertextuality.

And Rowling does it so wittily; the monstrous slavering three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone is based on Cerberus, but it’s Rowling’s deft touch to name it Fluffy. As for those Every Flavor Beans – any misappropriation involved is redeemed by this comical passage about the wise old wizard Dumbledore, Harry’s principal at Hogwarts:

“`I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them. But I think I’d be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?” He smiled and popped the golden brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”

The question of where Rowling obtained individual nuggets of material is secondary; what matters is the wholeness and emotional truth of her stories. Here she excels.

Harry the orphan symbolises every child’s deepest fear: having to navigate a dark and dangerous world without parents. He is working out who he is and how he will face his fate. He learns that pleasantness is sometimes a veneer for evil and that unsympathetic characters can prove surprisingly staunch and upright.

From his mentor, Dumbledore, he hears universal wisdoms. On the dark lord Voldemort, known as You Know Who: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Harry learns that his remarkable powers are due to the fact that he has something of the dreaded Voldemort within himself; a metaphor for original sin, and the way our strengths are also our weaknesses.

And Dumbledore helps Harry keep alive his sense of the parents he lost. He tells Harry it was only his mother’s love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack when he was a baby: “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved you is gone, will give you some protection forever.”

Rowling is welcome into my children’s psyches any time.

The next book is due in June. See you on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

First published in The Age.

Jung in the first stone

Feminists raged at The First Stone. Now Karen Kissane looks at another perspective.

There will always be these moments, I know, when people who think politically and types like me with a metaphysical bent end up staring at each other in helpless silence, with our mouths open. 
— Helen Garner, in a speech to the Sydney Institute about critical response to her book The First Stone.

HELEN GARNER did not spring from nature’s loins ready-made as a “type with a metaphysical bent”. She used to be very much a political animal. As a ’70s feminist she went to consciousness- raising groups, wrote women’s lib newsletters, helped desperate women get abortions.

But now she is irritated by her feminist tag. “People kept portraying me in the papers as a well-known feminist,” she says impatiently. “If I was Germaine Greer, it would be understandable, but I’ve never been a professional feminist. I was a feminist over the last 15 years or so only in the sense that any intelligent woman with a sense of justice would call herself a feminist.

At her age, she says, she realises that it is no longer clear where “fault” lies in the problems between individual men and women: “It’s an illusion that it ever was clear.”
Where does all this leave The First Stone? The book has been read mainly as feminist – or anti-feminist – argument.

But Garner now disdains ideological barrows and those who push them; political thinking is crude and simplistic, she says, and ideologues chop great bits out of reality to make it fit their world view. So if she was not writing a political analysis, what was it that she tried to do? A book conceived as investigative journalism ended more as an exploration of the writer’s own sensibility, with Garner planted at the centre of the story. She experiences a sequence of strange events and encounters, rather like a dreamer does, and later wrestles with analysing their deeper meanings for herself and others. It is as if she tries to examine the Ormond affair the way a Jungian would dissect a dream or a legend, delving behind its symbolism to find the patterns beneath.

In her author’s note Garner writes that she had raised the Ormond College story to a level where “its archetypal features have become visible”. Archetype is a term Jung used to describe symbols that form part of the collective unconscious in human minds. Archetypes are the stuff of myth, eternal images and stories that keep surfacing across different times and cultures in dreams, art, religion and literature.

This is just one of the Jungian concepts Garner uses. In the text she talks about “eros” and “anima” and tries at times to work out what was happening in the unconscious of some of the people she interviewed. She talks about how even for old men, judges represent the father; she suggests that the Ormond case tapped into a widespread anxiety, “something dark about fathers and daughters”.

Garner has been interested in Jung for some years and has attended Jungian conferences at La Trobe University. Earlier this year she said that her time with her former therapist, Melbourne Jungian analyst Peter O’Connor, several years ago had helped teach her “the language of the imagination”.

Had she tried to apply Jungian thought to the Ormond incident, and if so, does it work?
We wrote to Garner asking for an interview. She was reluctant to reignite the feminist debate but was pleased.

We made a date for our own interview. But Garner had expected that a Jungian analysis of the book by others was to be brought to her for comment, not that she was to describe her own attempts to conduct one. The more she was pressed, the more she withdrew.

She says: “The word archetype isn’t one that I really feel very confident about using, but it does seem to me that there are a limited number of story shapes in the world, in people’s human experiences; that’s why old people are rarely surprised by things.”
So what did she mean when she wrote that she had made the Ormond story’s archetypal features visible? “I don’t remember.

I just don’t remember. I wrote that author’s note at a time of extreme tension and anxiety, when I didn’t know if all those years of work were going to come to anything.

“I don’t think the story’s archetypal features have become visible, in retrospect. The only way I could have made them visible is if I had written it as a novel . . . There are freedoms in novels that there are not in non-fiction . . . I had to let the facts stand in the way of a good story – such facts as I could discover.”

Others have done archetypal analyses that have been less than flattering. In Arena Magazine John Docker argued that Garner portrayed Alan Gregory, whom she re-named Shepherd, as a Christ-like figure, a meek and gentle carer of his flock, “an outsider to and victim of those with worldly interests, the moneychangers”.

But one of the complainants she calls Elizabeth Rosen was painted as a Jewish princess with Medusa-like power, “that familiar figure, the Jew as other, foreign, alien . . . destroying, heartless, lurking”. Docker concluded: “What interests (Garner) is that she also, avowedly patient and gentle, a spurned mater dolorosa, is crucified, along with Dr Shepherd. By book’s end they are both martyrs, Christian victims of the Jew. What an odd view of the last 2000 years of European history.”

Garner is appalled into speechlessness by this interpretation, and denies the accusation by author Cassandra Pybus that her description of Rosen conjures up that vengeful man-hating figure, the “vagina dentata”.

But there is no question that Garner portrays Rosen as another archetype: the beautiful goddess whose lures the mortal cannot withstand. She writes: “It is impossible not to be moved by her daring beauty. She is a woman in the full glory of her youth, as joyful as a goddess, elated by her own careless authority and power.”

Later Garner suggests that Rosen has not “taken the responsibility of learning to handle the effects, on men, of her beauty and her erotic style of self-representation”. She asks: “Has a girl like Elizabeth Rosen even the faintest idea what a powerful anima figure she is to the men she encounters in her life? She told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to, here?”

Garner sees little point in trying to explain her use of anima. It is a term that Jung used to describe the “feminine”, intuitive, feeling parts of a man’s psyche. She says it is a useful concept but – “when you talk about it briefly it comes out sounding too pat and glib”.

IN HIS 1985 book Understanding Jung, O’Connor writes that a man who is out of touch with his anima may experience it forcefully in mid-life when he “projects” it on to women.

The erotic fantasies or extra-marital affairs that result are really signs of the man’s longing to connect with his own feminine side, O’Connor argues. Consciously or unconsciously, then, Garner has Rosen summoning forth this aspect of Shepherd.

The Rosen-as-anima passages are central to feminist bile about the book because they suggest that a beautiful girl in a sexy dress should expect to trigger in some men the reaction of a kid in a candy shop: an uncontrollable urge to plunder. It’s not far from this to “She asked for it.”

In fact, what Garner believes is that young women should take responsibility for their desire to provoke desire, should understand that it can have unforeseen results, and should be able to deal with minor uninvited skirmishes directly and with grace.

She is right that a feminist gender analysis – like those done on the basis of class or race – will never be the last word on the Ormond affair, or any other phenomenon. Life is too complicated for anything to be viewed fully through a single filter. But if we did not look at class and race and gender, we would not understand how cruelly they can limit people.

And, while her critics need to recognise that Garner was in many ways writing more as a novelist than an essayist, the fact that she tried to write on one level does not mean she cannot be examined on another. Jungianism and feminist politics have their crossroads.

Jana Salonen, a tutor at the University of Melbourne who is writing her doctorate on feminism and psychoanalysis, says: “Garner’s brand of Jungianism appeals to women’s patience and understanding of errant male projections on to women.
In practical terms, this amounts to little more than the politics of tolerance and good sportism. It leaves social justice and ideological change dependent on men’s psychic `evolution’.

The book’s value, she says, is that it has taken the sexual debate outside the stockade of ideological jargon and into the language of ordinary experience. Fair enough.

The danger is that Garner’s version of the Ormond story will become a new archetype, that of the sexual harassment case in which a pitiful man is wronged by vengeful harpies about a trivial matter.

Two years ago The Age reported on a shop assistant at a cheesecake factory who was persecuted by male workmates who, among other things, pinned a note to her bike that said “Tina sux dog’s balls all day long”. To try to avoid comments about her body Tina dressed in kaftan-like clothes that left only her face and hands uncovered. When she fled the job she changed her name because it had been linked with so much abuse that it was poisoned for her.

No one wrote a book about Tina. But then, a cheesecake factory is not Ormond College, and a shopgirl forced out of her job cannot be compared with a master who loses his career. Can she?

First published in The Age.

The Other Side of Ormond

Dr Jenna Mead is an academic who closely supported the two students in the Ormond College affair. She told Karen Kissane she does not want Helen Garner’s book on the scandal to enter the public record unchallenged.

FOR THREE years now Jenna Mead has warded off mainstream media’s invitations to talk. She does so in a quiet, insistent voice, pleasant but firm. She has often found, when it is a male journalist who has called, that by the end of the exchange he has blurted out, “I thought you’d be such an aggressive bitch, but you’re not like that at all!” “I think they mean it as a compliment,” she says, smiling, wincing. “I tell them I’ll try to take it that way.” The Ormond College affair has left weals on Jenna Mead’s life, too.

Those who see the Ormond case as a witchhunt against Dr Alan Gregory view it as a feminist conspiracy; people looking for an eminence grise tend to point to Jenna Mead. Dr Mead, 42, who now teaches English and women’s studies at La Trobe University, was a tutor at Ormond when the scandal broke. She was one of the first people to whom the students came for advice and was also intimately informed about the college’s thinking on the issue, as she was on the Ormond College council.

Except for an interview in the literary journal RePublica, she has barely told her side of the story until now.

The conspiracy notion, she says, is a complete fantasy. “I was certainly accused of that, from very early on in the piece, and I reject that imputation and accusation as strongly now as I did then.

“Presumably Dr Gregory sought advice. Presumably Ormond council sought advice. I do not see that being in a position of being approached by students for advice, seeking advice yourself and then conveying it, is being a feminist conspirator.

“I mean, what is going on here? How is it that two young women, who are only students, suddenly become hugely powerful larger-than-life figures who can command the resources of conspiracy? Was it really the case that these two young women hopped out of bed one morning and said to each other, `Today we’re going to ruin a man’s career?’ ” In fact, she says, not a shred of organised support was offered to the students by the college of which they were members. “What does this say about the situation of those women as members of a community in which they were supposed to have equal rights?” The Ormond controversy has been reignited by the recent publication of the book The First Stone by the noted writer Helen Garner. In the course of her analysis, Garner criticises the students for their “ghastly punitiveness” and “puritan feminism”.

Garner was shackled in her research for the book by the refusal of the students and their supporters to speak to her. Dr Mead gave Garner an initial telephone interview but broke off contact when she discovered Garner had written Dr Gregory an impassioned letter of support. The women believed the letter showed Garner did not have an open mind.

In Dr Mead’s office, there are copies of other Garner books, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Children’s Bach, in the bookcase behind her desk. As a lecturer in women’s studies, Dr Mead might one day find herself teaching about The First Stone.

Dr Mead appreciates its literary merits but disagrees with its premises and says that as investigative journalism it is partial and inaccurate. “In many ways this book does what Helen Garner’s writing has always done. It’s terrific on dialogue, it’s economical, and it dramatises a social moment. This time it’s a moment of moral panic suffered by the establishment, with whom Helen Garner now seems to want to identify.”
In this case, the establishment is personified by the Ormond College council, to which the young women had complained.

Dr Mead is deeply critical of its response to the events. Some members were sympathetic to the students and troubled by how the issue was handled, Dr Mead says, but they were outvoted. In many ways she sees the dispute as a clash of cultures, a stand-off between older, conservative men and the young women whose presence at Ormond they had never quite come to terms with.

“When I sat on council men outnumbered women by about five to one, so we were almost invisible amid the dark suits of establishment Melbourne,” Dr Mead says. “Our concerns or those of women students barely rated a mention alongside the agenda items or the serious business of making connections. Members of the council addressed the meetings as `Gentlemen’ . . . What I saw on council was an old- fashioned Wasp elite comfortably enjoying its privilege.” Asked whether the establishment closed ranks to protect Dr Gregory, Dr Mead says: “When was the last time the establishment opened ranks?” DR MEAD says she was approached by five female students after the party at Ormond. She was living at the college as a tutor and director of studies for arts students and had been elected by the staff as their representative on the council.

It was not the first time that, as a prominent female fellow of the college, she had been brought stories of harassment. “In my experience of Ormond, it was not only women who were harassed,” she says. “Gay men were harassed, and students who were
racially or ethnically different were also harassed.”
She still believes she made the right judgment about the young women who came to see her and points to the students’ original position as evidence of their integrity. She says they wanted only three things: an acknowledgement that the alleged events had taken place, an apology from Dr Gregory, and procedures put in place to ensure it did not happen again.

“Pretty straightforward, really,” Dr Mead says. “And when you understand that they wanted that done confidentially, not outside the college, not in the law courts, I think that it was a pretty mature response.”
Dr Mead says she was not involved in the decision to go to the police. So why, as Garner keeps asking in her book, did the young women go to the cops? Why could they not handle themselves something that, if it occurred, boiled down to nothing more than a minor grope by an older man at a party? Wouldn’t a slap in the face have taken care of it?
Dr Mead says: “Helen Garner refuses to acknowledge the difference between what she wants to see as a nerdy grope by some `poor bastard’ at a party and a series of actions alleged to have occurred between a man holding a position of various responsibilities that included a duty of care, and two young women who, as students, were dependent on him.

“The master oversees employment and the distribution of scholarships. The provision of bursaries is `in his gift’. The confidential files on students are kept in his office . . . Why would a young woman assault a man on whom she is (so) dependent?” According to Dr Mead, the students went to court because they felt betrayed by Dr Gregory and the college council, which refused to see them as anything other than malicious, trouble-making liars. They wanted their truthfulness to be publicly established. And they chose from the start to pursue their complaints through formal channels rather than with Dr Gregory because harassment is different from other kinds of sexual insult and requires a response from the institution concerned.

Dr Mead says: “One of the things nobody seems to understand about this case is that when you go to the police and make a complaint, the police don’t just say, `Right, for sure, we’ll charge the guy.’ They investigate it thoroughly. In going to the police those young women were invoking a very stringent test of their own veracity. Now the criminal code has the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of not being particularly sympathetic to women. It was a very courageous act.”
As law students, being perceived as liars might have had professional as well as personal significance. How could they become established in a career that requires public probity if questions remained about their truthfulness? Dr Mead is impatient with claims that the young women have been sheltered by anonymity while Dr Gregory has been publicly crucified; in fact, she says, everyone who matters to their lives or their careers knows who they are.

Dr Mead argues that Garner has also failed to grasp that sexual harassment is not just about the alleged offence but the context in which it is committed. For it to qualify as harassment, there must be a professional, economic or institutional relationship between the parties, in which the victim could have been disadvantaged for refusing to tolerate the behavior; harassment procedures are about defining the nature of formal relationships. These were complexities that the Ormond council failed to grasp until too late, she says.

Dr Mead is also critical of the college’s sexual harassment procedures at the time. She had argued when the vice-master was first appointed sexual harassment officer that adequate procedures had not been set up, and that the vice- master did not have the necessary independence to handle complaints.

Dr Mead says the council next took a narrow, legalistic approach to the case to try to make it go away, but this misfired.

“The subcommittee (set up by Ormond council) was not to inquire into the complaints but to formalise them,” Dr Mead says. “They wanted the students to sign their statements so that they became legal documents. Most sexual harassment counsellors will talk about that dividing line between an informal statement, which can be the basis of conciliation, and a formal statement, which becomes a legal document and tends, then, to entrench positions.”
As she sees it, the council’s inability to understand what sexual harassment was led to it mishandling the case at almost every step.

JENNA MEAD came late to feminism. The second wave of the ’70s, which swept up many of her colleagues, left her untouched. As the child of Anglo- Indian migrants, she was more concerned with issues of race, and it was not until the feminism of the ’80s also began to look at the politics of difference ethnicity, class, sexual preference that it started to have meaning
for her.

In terms of the Ormond affair, “neither the young women who came to see me, or myself, regarded ourselves as feminist activists in a second-wave sort of way; nor were we moral crusaders,” she says.

“Feminism became important in this matter first as a way of analysing the events that took place. It was not the primary spur to the political activism.”
The case has been a rocky landmark in mainstream Australia’s journey towards the vision of the equal opportunity and sex discrimination laws passed in the ’80s, she says. But there have been big shifts in attitude since it occurred, Dr Mead argues. She points to the Terry Griffiths case in NSW and the new allegations recently made by a student against an Ormond staff member. Accusations were handled differently, she says; complainants were taken seriously and claims were quickly heard by independent conciliators.

She believes The First Stone does little to further the public debate on sexual harassment. “I think what it adds is a very personal view about the matter. The argument’s shaky, there’s no research here in terms of the literature about sexual harassment, there’s no engagement with other debates, no quotation of other cases . . . You couldn’t read the book and find out what sexual harassment is or isn’t. If you compare it to books like Susan Faludi’s Backlash, or Naomi Wolf’s work, or Camille Paglia’s or Katie Roiphe’s, all of a sudden you see that there’s no referencing and no analysis. It’s as though she hasn’t read anything about what feminism means now.”
What concerns Dr Mead most about the book is the possibility that it will deter other women from fighting back. “It would be appalling if all that the last four years had produced the effort, the commitment, the stress, the cost is a situation where nobody pursues a complaint of sexual harassment or abuse because they are afraid to make them. That would be the real tragedy.”
As for what she has learnt from the Ormond College affair Dr Mead pauses and grins. “That people who think that real life is outside universities and not inside universities are wrong.”
The background to the case.

DR ALAN GREGORY, formerly master of Ormond College, was forced to resign after a series of events that sprang from accusations that he had harassed two students at a college party in 1991.

One student alleged he had squeezed her breast while dancing, the other that he had locked the door of his study, made suggestive remarks, and touched her breasts.

Dr Gregory has always strongly denied the claims.

The women complained to the college council. It ultimately found that while the women had acted in good faith, the council maintained “its full confidence in the master”. The students then took their claims to court.

In the first trial, Dr Gregory was found guilty of one count of assault but the verdict was later overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence his oath against hers. In the second trial, he was found not guilty.

At no point were the students or Dr Gregory found to be lying, although one court case resulted in costs being awarded in Dr Gregory’s favor.

After an Equal Opportunity Commission hearing the college published an apology to the young women over its handling of the case, acknowledged they had acted honorably, and made them afinancial settlement.

First published in The Age.